The Swap – Robyn Harding

This is another one of those books with an intriguing premise, a strong start and then, I dunno, about half way through it all starts to fall apart, but because you’ve already invested a chunk of time, you sort of feel obligated to see it through.

Canadian author Robyn Harding’s domestic thriller The Swap is the story of three women whose lives intersect in Hawking, a small town on an island off the West Coast (I pictured Salt Spring Island). Lo is a seventeen-year-old high school student; Freya is a beautiful Instagram influencer married to a disgraced but drop-dead-gorgeous NHL hockey player, and Jamie and her husband have recently moved to Hawking to escape a personal tragedy.

For Lo, life couldn’t be more boring. She hates school; she hates her classmates; she hates her life.

My life was exceptionally boring. I had no friends, no hobbies, no extracurricular activities. I did, however, have a lot of chores.

Lo lives with her unconventional family on a hobby farm. When she’s not looking after the animals or helping her mother pickle and can food from the garden, she’s walking through the woods or along the beach taking photographs, the one thing she feels she’s pretty good at. When Freya shows up at Lo’s high school with a flyer advertising pottery classes, Lo feels something akin to excitement.

Even through the crowd in the hallway, I could tell she was somebody. There was no way I could have known then that she would come into my life and change it, change me, but I felt a magnetic pull toward her, like I had to meet her. It was destiny.

Lo signs up for Freya’s pottery class and thus begins a dysfunctional friendship between the two. Freya starts confiding in Lo, and Lo feels that the two have an impenetrable bond, that is, until Jamie enters the picture. Jamie lacks confidence and, like Lo, she basks in Freya’s attention. What neither of these two seem to realize is how toxic and manipulative Freya is. It’s only after Freya orchestrates the swap of the title (I won’t bother spoiling you here, although the book cover and blurb gives it away), that these relationships really start to crumble.

My problem with The Swap is that none of the characters are likeable or sympathetic except, strangely, Max, Freya’s husband. And sure, there are lots of twists and turns, but I didn’t believe in a single one of them. Yes, it was easy to see how Lo might be manipulated; she’s had a relatively sheltered life. The story just didn’t work for me, although it was certainly easy enough to turn the pages.

The Nowhere Child – Christian White

Thirty-year-old Kim Leamy is just living her life in Melbourne, Australia when James Finn, an accountant from Manson, Kentucky approaches her with some startling news. He believes Kim is actually Sammy Went, a girl who was kidnapped from her family’s home in Manson twenty eight years ago. He offers enough proof that Kim believes him, and so she heads to the States to meet the family she never knew she had.

Christian White’s debut novel The Nowhere Child follows Kim’s journey into her unknown history, but also offers readers a glimpse into her family around the time that she originally went missing. There’s her parents, Jack and Molly, already struggling to hang on to their crumbling marriage; there’s her sister, Emma,13, and brother, Stuart, 9. And there’s The Church of the Light Within, a group not a cult, an important distinction, who “worshipped by handling venomous snakes and scorpions. If rumours were to be believed, they also drank strychnine, spoke in tongues […], drank blood and worshipped the Devil.” Jack, who had been raised in the church, has been drifting away from it, but Molly has been embracing it with new-found fervor, especially after the disappearance of her daughter.

The Wents have all been keeping secrets from each other, but their distress over Sammy is legitimate. It seems as though she disappeared into thin air. Manson’s town sheriff, Chester Ellis, is flummoxed and the reader will be, too.

The Nowhere Child is reminiscent of another book I read recently, Never Look Back. That book also dealt with someone discovering something about their identity that they hadn’t known. I really enjoyed The Nowhere Child. Kim was a likeable protagonist and there were some truly creepy moments in this book because cults! snakes! an old, abandoned grist mill where if you write a person’s name on the wall they disappear! It all makes for page turning fun with a final twist that was both clever and believable.

Never Look Back – Alison Gaylin

I love a good thriller – a book that keeps me turning the pages long after my bed time. There are certain things I look for in a thriller: believable characters that I can root for, plausible plot, good writing, a few twists and turns to keep me guessing, suspense. It’s not too much to ask is it?

Alison Gaylin is a new-to-me writer and for my first outing I chose Never Look Back. This is the dual-timeline story of April Cooper, a teenager who is on the run with her boyfriend Gabriel LeRoy. Together they are known as the Inland Empire killers. In the present day, Quentin Garrison is a podcast producer pursuing a story about these killers because his mother’s sister was one of their victims. His podcast series is called Closure, and that is what he is looking for.

April and Gabriel were thought to have died in a fire at the Gideon compound (a doomsday cult), but a phone call from a source leads Quentin to Renee and Robin Diamond, a mother and daughter on the East Coast.

What do all these people have in common? Secrets. There are loads of them in Never Look Back.

Gabriel is keeping secrets from everyone, including his husband Dean. Renee is keeping secrets from her daughter. In letters to her unborn baby, April reveals secrets she is keeping from Gabriel.

Gaylin’s book is inspired, in part, by Charles Starkweather, 18, and Carol Ann Fugate, 13. In 1958, Charles and Carol Ann killed eleven people, including Carol Ann’s stepfather and mother and then went on the run. This crime was made into a popular movie called Badlands, starring Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. I remember watching it as a teenager and really loving it.

Although Never Look Back doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts, I was wholly invested in the story and if you are looking for a page-turner with lots going on, you could certainly do a lot worse.

Messiah – Boris Starling

Boris Starling’s debut, Messiah, is a straight-ahead police procedural about a team of Scotland Yard detectives tasked with finding the person responsible for a series of gruesome murders.

Detective Superintendent Red Metcalfe has a reputation for being able to get into the minds of killers and so he’s in charge of putting together a team of officers to figure out whodunnit. Red “wants people who spark off each other because they think in different ways,” and that’s how he comes up with Clifton (who’s “good enough to be Red’s successor one day”), Beauchamp (“because going into one of these cases without a female point of view is like having one hand tied behind your back”), and Warren whom he picks with the flip of a coin.

It soon becomes apparent that Red and his team are not hunting your garden-variety serial killer. Although there is one similar detail between the crimes (the killer cuts out the victim’s tongues), the cops can’t find any other link between the victims and as the bodies pile up, Red gets frustrated. Worse, there is a total lack of physical evidence at the crime scenes.

The investigation in present days is supplemented with details about Red’s past, which includes a terrible decision Red had to make as a university student. The flashbacks provide some context and help us to understand Red’s single-mindedness.

I haven’t read enough police procedurals to know how Messiah compares. (Heck, I am not even sure if this is a police procedural except that it really is all about these cops trying to catch the killer.) Still, I really enjoyed this book. It was unfussy, gory, and straight ahead entertaining (if messy crime scenes and psychopathic killers are your jam.) Apparently there’s a television series and I bet it would be awesome…even knowing whodunit.

Our Kind of Cruelty – Araminta Hall

Mike and Verity spent much of their nine years together (from second year university until their late twenties) playing a game called the Crave. The two would head to a club, where Mike would hide in the shadowy corners watching while Verity waited at the bar until some poor unsuspecting guy would hit on her. When she’d had enough, she’d touch her necklace and Mike would “rescue” her.

I would push through the mass of people, pulling at the useless man drooling over her, and ask him what he thought he was doing talking to my girlfriend. And because I am useful-looing in that tall, broad way, and because V likes me to lift weights and start all my days with a run, they would invariably back off with their hands in front of their faces, looking scared and timid. Sometimes we couldn’t wait to start kissing, sometimes we went to the loo and fucked in the stalls, V calling out so anyone could hear.

Things are different now, though, for these crazy kids. Mike has just returned to London after two years in New York City. And he’s just received an invitation to Verity’s wedding. He’s pretty sure that this wedding is just a newer, more complicated version of the Crave. After all, he and Verity are end game. When he returned to London he bought a house he knew she’d like, had it decorated as she would like it, spent thousands of pounds redoing the garden. Mike knows Verity better than she knows herself.

Early on in Araminta Hall’s novel Our Kind of Cruelty, we learn that Mike is telling his story at the request of his barrister who “needs to get a clear handle on the situation.” Mike reveals his horrific childhood, living in extreme poverty with his addicted mother, and her various abusive boyfriends until he is taken into care by his loving foster parents, Elaine and Barry. Despite his past, Mike has had a successful and lucrative career as a banker but everything starts to spin out of control after he gets the wedding invitation. When it comes to Verity, Mike is not clear-headed.

Hall chooses to tell the story from Mike’s perspective; we never hear Verity’s side of things. Although Mike is clearly delusional, he isn’t unsympathetic. (Much in the same way that Joe in You, despite the fact that he is clearly a psychopath, isn’t unsympathetic.) To believe Mike is to believe that Verity took a shy, awkward, damaged young man and molded him into a physically imposing, devoted lover. And then, when she tired of the game, she abandoned him.

What’s missing, of course, is Verity’s perspective, which we never get. On top of that, Mike is an unreliable narrator. Then, in court, Verity is further punished – which hints at Hall’s political agenda. I kept thinking that the story might be slightly more interesting as a psychological thriller if, in fact, Mike had been right all along: they were still playing the Crave.

Nevertheless, Our Kind of Cruelty is well-written and moderately entertaining.

First Born – Will Dean

I discovered Will Dean on Twitter and a few months ago I nabbed a copy of his well-reviewed novel The Last Thing to Burn, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I recently picked up First Born and although I read it in just a couple of sittings, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much.

First Born is the story of 22-year-old identical twins Molly and Katie “KT” Raven. Molly tells us “I don’t use the term identical twin because it’s a blatant lie. A travesty. Our base DNA is identical, sure, but that’s about all that is. We were once one person. We are not anymore.”

When the novel opens, Molly is working in an office in London, while KT is studying in New York City. KT is the risk taker; Molly spends her time assessing threats and preparing for the worst. Molly sees danger everywhere and she is always prepared, even going to far as to making homemade weapons out of pound coins and a sock.

The twins’ parents have been visiting KT in New York and when Molly arrives, they spend their time eating toast and drinking tea and waiting for the police to give them information about just what happened to KT. There’s very little to go on, and Molly feels that it is her duty to help the investigation along. She tracks down KT’s best friend, boyfriend, investigates the creepy son of the landlord and uncovers some things about her sister she did not know.

First Born does offer a couple of excellent twists, and Molly’s voice is definitely singular. The action clips along, for sure. For me, though, it wasn’t believable and I wasn’t sure I understood character motivations at all. By about a third of the way in the prose started to grate a little bit and there was something sort of ‘lazy’ about it. Like, suddenly a character has a gun which she pulled out of nowhere, but we’re told she’d purchased before. That sort of thing. The shenanigans were all a bit over-the-top.

Still – if that sort of thing doesn’t irk you, you’ll probably have a lot of fun reading this book – if you are willing to suspend disbelief and don’t mind the crazy.

Magpie – Elizabeth Day

One of my favourite Booktubers, Jack Edwards, loved Elizabeth Day’s novel Magpie, and it was already on my TBR list anyway, so with his added endorsement, I picked it up. (Oh, who am I kidding? I don’t need anyone’s recommendation to buy more books; I just buy them.)

Anyway.

Marisa hasn’t always been lucky in love until she meets Jake.

He smelled of freshly washed laundry. No cologne. His face was uncomplicated: A defined chin and boyish cheeks. Kind eyes. A smattering of sandy-colored stubble. He had looks you could imagine aging well and at the same time you could see instantly what sort of child he had been.

Marisa moves in with Jake, and they make plans to have a family. If it all seems to be happening a little quickly, which Marisa’s friend Jas suggests, Marisa claims that “when you know, you just know.” But, as it turns out, there are things that Marisa does not know.

When Jake suggests that they take in a lodger to help pay their mortgage, Marisa agrees thinking that “it will alleviate the pressure on Jake and that, as a result, he will be more present with her. Enter Kate.

She is soft-spoken with a lively, sharp face and brown hair with an unruly fringe falling to just below her eyebrows so that the first time they meet to assess her suitability, Marisa notices that Kate keeps blowing it out of her eyes.

At first the new living arrangement works out okay. Marisa writes and illustrates custom children’s books, and she has the house all to herself during the day. But then she starts to notice something between Jake and Kate. As her uneasiness grows, so does her paranoia.

Magpie depends on subterfuge. There were lots of things I liked about this book, but there were also some things that seemed a little over-the-top and contrived. Still, it was well-written, easy to read, and I think most people will enjoy its twists and turns.

Empire of the Vampire – Jay Kristoff

Oh, vampires. Unless you sparkle, you’re my favourite fantasy creature. It’s hard to find books about vampires with any real bite, y’know. I enjoyed Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires and Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead, but never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to enjoy a 700+ page high fantasy novel about vampires. The first in a series, no less! Because 700+ pages. And fantasy. Not really two things that make my very-much-still-beating bookish heart pitter pat. I was gifted a copy of Jay Kristoff’s novel Empire of the Dead last Christmas and it seemed like a good time to take a crack at it because I am now on holiday.

Gabriel de Leon is a Silversaint. What’s that you might well ask? Silversaints are paleblood’s (half vampire) who have taken a vow to protect the church and the realm from coldbloods, full-on vampires. At fifteen, Gabriel was whisked away from his home to San Michon, a holy place where he is trained in the art of killing vampires.

I do here vow; Let the dark know my name and despair. So long as it burns, I am the flame. So long as it bleeds, I am the blade. So long as it sins, I am the saint. And I am silver.

When the story begins, Gabriel is a prisoner of Margot Chastain, Undying Empress of Wolves and Men. Chastain’s historian, Marquis Jean-Francois, has joined Gabriel in his cell to “gather all knowledge of [his] order.”

The conversation between Gabriel and Jean-Francois provides the structure for the story the Silversaint tells. It bounces back and forth in time and introduces a cast of characters, many of whom readers will fall madly in love with (including a lioness, a horse and a sword. Not joking.) As for Gabriel: he’s cynical, foul-mouthed, loyal and brave. He’s the hero of the tale, but he’s imperfect, for sure. He’s also likeable.

I wouldn’t have necessarily said that I read fantasy, but according to this definition from Book Riot, I guess I do:

The basic defining tenet of high fantasy is that a fantasy story is set in an alternative fictional world, typically with magical elements. High fantasy is sometimes called epic fantasy, and some of the hallmarks of this subset of the fantasy genre include a high page count, lots of characters, usually a quest, and, most importantly, an alternative or secondary world as opposed to the real or primary world. With high fantasy, there are usual global stakes involved—you know, good versus evil, saving the world, and all that.

In any case, I read enough to understand the world building and the mention of mythical creatures. It’s easy to spot the nods to Tolkien, Martin, Malory, Christianity, Beowulf, and even Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It is clear that Kristoff is a reader, and books and their myriad joys are mentioned on more than one occasion.

As an English teacher, I could easily identify the hero’s journey and so I was able to anticipate some of the twists. I probably don’t read enough fantasy to know whether Kristoff’s novel is cream of the crop or not though, but by my metric it’s great.

I’ve read some reviews that complained about the novel’s pacing. That wasn’t a problem for me. I read this book in a week and I very much looked forward to picking it up whenever I had the chance. There was lots of gory action and well-written fight scenes. There were lots of funny moments and also some truly heart-breaking moments.

I would suspect that when you are creating a world, lots of exposition is necessary – but I never felt as though Kristoff wasted time with backstory. Readers were dropped into a fully-realized world and I wasn’t too concerned with who everyone was beyond who is good and who is most definitely not. I have no clue how Kristoff managed to keep all the characters and the rules of this world straight, but it felt like a real enough place to me.

Books need stakes and Empire of the Vampire has them. The world has been dark for almost three decades, and part of this story is when Gabriel runs into someone from San Michon who claims they have found something that can finally bring an end to the darkness. Gabriel is on a vengeance mission, but he agrees to accompany the group. Cue the bloodshed.

If I have one niggle about the story, it’s the expletive-heavy insults like “you fuck-eyed little pig dick” and “fuck you, you little shitgrubber.” There’s a lot of swearing in this book. A lot a lot. I swear a fair bit myself, so when I notice it in fiction it’s past the annoying phase.

Still, I have to say that I had fun reading Empire of the Vampire far more than I expected I would. It’s the first book in a series and while I am generally pretty lazy about keeping up with series, I will definitely be spending more time with Gabriel de Leon.

Dark Rooms – Lili Anolik

As far as metaphors go, the dark rooms of Lili Anolik’s impressive debut Dark Rooms is apt. This is the story of Grace Baker whose younger sister, Nica, is found murdered in the cemetery which borders Chandler Academy, the private boarding school the sisters attend in Hartford Connecticut and where their parents are teachers.

Nica’s death leaves Grace reeling. Over-shadowed by Nica’s vivacious, doesn’t-give-a-shit personality in life, she now buckles under the weight of her death. She just wanted to “go to sleep [to escape] that total exhaustion, where even my face was numb, and none of the talk matter[ed] anyway because she was already dead dead dead.”

Someone is quickly blamed for Nica’s death, but when Grace discovers evidence which might actually exonerate him, she begins to dig deeper into her sister’s life.

Nica’s death sends ripples into Grace’s life. Her parents’ marriage falls apart and her mother leaves. Grace’s friends – well, Nica’s friends, including her boyfriend, Jamie (for whom Grace has feelings that perhaps cross the line of friendship) – rally around Grace, yet “there was a tension, a hostility even.” Grace escapes to college after graduation, but that’s a disaster, too.

A brand-new life was settling around me. It was ugly and it was empty. but I was okay with it because, thanks to the drugs, I wasn’t really in it. Not really being in it, however, had its consequences.

When she returns home, she gets a job at Chandler and starts to unravel the story of her sister. She soon discovers that nothing in her life is as it seems.

Dark Rooms is a well-written, mystery with some interesting twists. Although the main character is barely out of high school, I wouldn’t call this YA, really, although I did read it from my classroom library. There’s a lot goin on and a lot of characters to keep track of, but I enjoyed my time with Grace (well, maybe ‘enjoyed’ isn’t the right word) and I would definitely read more by this author.

The Nothing Man – Catherine Ryan Howard

When Eve Black was just twelve, someone broke into her family home in Cork, Ireland and killed her parents and seven-year-old sister, Anna. Nearly twenty years later, she has written a book about the event and its connection to several other unsolved crimes in the hopes that perhaps the perpetrator will finally be caught. That book is The Nothing Man.

Catherine Ryan Howard uses the book within a book format to unspool the story of this “nothing man”, who torments his victims with menacing phone calls before showing up to their houses in the middle of the night. Eve’s true crime account reads exactly like that: a survivor’s story fleshed out with information painstakingly gathered from police reports, and information provided by people closest to the case.

And then there’s Jim Doyle, a just-past-middle-aged security guard who stumbles across the book at the big box grocery store where he works. The book’s existence throws Jim into a tailspin.

Once he knew the book existed, Jim could think of nothing else. It was a ring of fire around him, drawing nearer with each passing moment, threatening to torch every layer of him one by one. His clothes. His skin. His life. If it reached him it would leave nothing but ash and all his secrets, totally exposed.

The biggest secret of all is that he is The Nothing Man. (Not a spoiler.) As he reads the book – or, I should say, as we read the book, Jim becomes more and more unsettled. His crimes stopped after the Black family, but Eve’s book has awakened something in him and it’s an itch Jim has to scratch, but first he needs to know what Eve knows.

The Nothing Man is clever and fun to read, even while it makes the point that our fascination with true crime neglects the impact these events have on the victims and their families. We all know the names of the famous serial killers, but do we remember the names of any of the people whose lives they took?

Although Howard’s book isn’t really a thriller (because we know whodunnit from the beginning), it’s still a page-turner and watching Eve and Jim play their cat-and-mouse game makes for an entertaining read.