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.

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.

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.

The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires – Grady Hendrix

I was introduced to vampires at an early age. My mom used to take my younger brothers and me to the community centre where they offered Saturday matinees of movies like Count Dracula and Taste the Blood of Dracula starring Christopher Lee. I mean, they’re campy now, but back when I was a kid of 11 and 12, they were scary. Although I probably didn’t understand the sexual component of the thrall as a kid, I knew that vampires were powerful opponents and you wouldn’t want to be running into them in a dark alley. So, I have always loved vampires, but I guess I love the romantic version of them, the beautiful, tortured versus the ugly creepy. David Boreanaz as Angel rather than Gary Oldman as Dracula, if you know what I mean.

The vampire in Grady Hendrix’s novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires lands somewhere between Angel and Dracula. He’s charming, handsome and a skilled predator. When he arrives in Old Village, an enclave of Charleston, South Carolina, he causes a stir amongst the women who live there. These are women who are expected to look after the children, the house, the pets, their appearance and not much more.

The novel opens with a funny scene. Patricia, the protagonist, is getting ready to host book club. There are very strict rules about this book club: Marjorie Fretwell chooses thirteen “appropriate” titles from the Western canon, and the members of the book club vote for the eleven they would like to read. Tonight, Patricia is supposed to lead a discussion about Cry, the Beloved Country and that’s a problem because she didn’t manage to read it. Turns out, Patricia is just in the wrong book club and when she and some other women band together to read things like Helter Skelter and Psycho, things turn around for her.

When James Harris shows up in Old Village, though, things become decidedly weird. First, Patricia discovers Mrs. Savage, an old woman from down the street (and James Harris’s aunt), in her alley eating a raccoon, “one gory hand [in] its open belly [scooping] up a fistful of translucent guts.” This scene is an early reminder that this is indeed a horror novel. There are many other totally squicky scenes: rats and bugs and all manner of yuck – which is, gross, yes, but also awesome. Then, Miss Mary, her mother-in-law, who now lives with Patricia and her family, claims she knows James Harris from decades before – although surely that can’t be, and besides, Miss Mary has dementia. Fans of vampire lore will have fun spotting the tropes, and seeing the ways Hendrix has upended them, too.

It takes a while for Patricia to figure out what’s going on and even then it’s unbelievable and impossible and, by then, James Harris has made himself a part of the community. When children start disappearing, though, Patricia is determined to do something about it.

Patricia is a wonderful character. At the beginning, she’s a southern housewife who is unable to assert herself. She gave up her nursing career to marry her psychiatrist husband, who is a jackass, and raise her children, Korey and Blue, and her life is now monotonous; she is a shadow of who she was. James Harris shakes her out of her stupor.

I loved The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. It’s funny, horrifying, nostalgic and smart. If you like horror novels, I can highly recommend this one. I have also read My Best Friend’s Exorcism, which is also excellent.

The Chain – Adrian McKinty

Whether or not you believe the hype surrounding Adrian McKinty’s novel The Chain will depend on what you look for in a book. If the hype is to be believed, The Chain is “a blazing, full-tilt thriller” (Guardian), “a rare thriller that ends up being highly personal” (USA Today) and “psychologically rich” (Entertainment Weekly). The book also won several awards including the International Thriller Writers Best Novel of the Year. So its pedigree precedes it, and I guess that can be both a blessing and a curse.

The Chain tells the story of Rachel O’Neill, divorced mom to 13-year-old Kylie. The last few months have been shitty for Rachel because she’s been battling breast cancer, but things are looking up because her cancer is in remission and she’s going to be starting a new job as a philosophy lecturer at a local community college. Then the unthinkable happens, and her daughter is kidnapped.

It makes no sense for someone to take Kylie; Rachel has no money, but as the kidnappers tell her, it’s not about the money it’s about the chain.

“You’re in The Chain now, Rachel. We both are. And The Chain is going to protect itself. So, first thing is no cops. If you ever talk to a cop, the people who run The Chain will know and they’ll tell me to kill Kylie and pick a different target, and I will. They don’t care about you or your family; all they care about is the security of The Chain.

The way this thing works is someone whose own child has been kidnapped must pay a Bitcoin ransom and kidnap someone else’s child. Once that person has paid the ransom and kidnapped someone else’s child, the first person’s child will be released. And so on and so on aka The Chain. It’s all pretty clever and diabolical, really.

But.

Look, I had zero trouble turning the pages as Rachel and her brother-in-law Pete (ex-military and low-key heroin addict) try to figure out how they are going to comply with The Chain’s demands. As a mom myself, I could understand her panic and her willingness to do whatever was asked of her. Her motivation was clear. Still, I didn’t feel like she or Kylie (as resourceful and brave as she was) or Pete were particularly fleshed out.

Then there’s the people behind The Chain. I mean, I guess it ultimately doesn’t matter what motivated them, because clearly they’re psychos, but when their identities are revealed and the novel’s final confrontation happens it all just felt a little over-the-top cartoon-y to me.

Lots of thriller lovers will (and clearly did) enjoy the way this book is written: straight forward, unembellished prose. Lots of dialogue. Short, choppy sentences. I mean, there’s something to be said for writing this way for this kind of book, something that mimics the breathlessness that the characters must be feeling. If you don’t have to spend any real time with anybody, there’s a lot you can pack into 350 pages, and I feel like that’s what McKinty did. It’s a case of plot over substance.

So, ultimately, this was a so-so read for me. There was a lot of momentum going in, but the final bit of the book just felt contrived and wayyyyy too implausible for me. Because we never really know the characters, it’s hard to really care too much about them. They feel like cardboard cut outs: the plucky kid, the down-on-her-luck-but-determined mom, the has-his-demons-but-is-a-great-guy uncle. If you don’t care too much about writing or nuance or investing emotionally, then The Chain might be the book for you.

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.

Later – Stephen King

I was a total SK stan back in the day, and while I no longer read everything he writes, I do still read him. I picked up Later yesterday morning, and didn’t stop reading until I finished the book. Like Joyland, Later is part of the Hard Case Crime series, which reissues classic crime stories for today’s audiences and also allows current writers to try their hand. While not strictly a crime story, Later does nicely slot into this series.

Jamie Conklin sees dead people.

As far as I can remember, I always have. But it’s not like in that movie with Bruce Willis. It can be interesting, it can be scary sometimes (the Central Park dude), it can be a pain in the ass, but mostly it just is

The way this works is that Jamie sees the dead soon after they have died, wearing what they were wearing, and hanging out in a place where they spent a lot of time. Jamie can ask them questions, and the dead must tell him the truth. Eventually, usually within a week, the dead start to drift away from him until they finally disappear forever.

Jamie’s mom, Tia, knows about her son’s strange ability and, more importantly, she believes in it. For a long time, it is their secret, but then she tells her girlfriend, an NYPD officer. That’s when things start to get tricky for Jamie. After the relationship between Tia and Liz goes sideways, Liz has one last favour to ask of Jamie, and it concerns a guy called Thumper. Jamie tells us at the beginning that he thinks “this is a horror story”, and he’s not wrong.

I don’t want to say too much more than that because I don’t want to spoil any of the novel’s myriad pleasures. Jamie is a terrific narrator, and Later is vintage King. The story cracks along, there are plenty of creep-a-licious moments, and a couple of surprises, too. Whenever I do read King, I am reminded of why he is loved by so many. Reading him is like sliding into your most comfortable sweats on a cold winter night. He always delivers a great tale and Later is a worthy addition to your King collection.

The Paper Palace – Miranda Cowley Heller

I read Miranda Cowley Heller’s debut novel The Paper Palace sitting on the porch at my best friend’s “farm.” (I put farm in quotation marks because it’s not a farm anymore, just a peaceful retreat in a beautiful spot at the top of a hill looking over rolling pastures, and the river. It’s magic.) I read for hours because I couldn’t stop. If there’s a list of things I love in books, I’d say The Paper Palace ticks them all.

Elle Bishop, 50, (there’s a thing I loved right there; Elle is 50.) is at her family’s compound in the Back Woods on Cape Cod. She has been coming here her whole life, and it is here where she first met Jonas when he was eight and she was eleven. For the next few summers, Elle and Jonas are inseparable, but then something happens that changes everything, and the two go their separate ways. They meet intermittently, but somehow find their way back into each other’s lives as adults. They are BFFs. Or, at least, that’s the boat they’re trying to float. They’ve managed, until this summer.

The novel takes place over twenty-four hours, but really spans a life time, flipping back and forth between then and now. Elle cherry picks the stories she tells: her mother’s failed marriages, her father’s abandonment, the history of “The Paper Palace” (the name of the place where they summer), her complicated relationship with her older sister, Anna, her friendship with Jonas.

In the here and now, the story begins with a betrayal. It’s not a spoiler to say that Elle and Jonas consummate their relationship; the blurb on the back tells us that much.

I could look at him and nothing else for eternity and be happy. I could listen to him, my eyes closed, feel his breath and his words wash over me, time and time and time again. It is all I want.

What Elle has, though, is a pretty amazing husband, Peter, and three kids. Jonas, too, is married to Gina whose “petite, perfect little bee-sting of a body” makes Elle wonder: “That’s what he wanted?” Elle and Jonas’s shared act is a powder keg with the potential to blow up many lives.

So, those of you who know me or read this blog regularly know that I love angst. LOVE it. Chuck an obstacle in front of people who love each other and I will be swooning before you can say, “hell, yeah!” Wanna stick a literary dagger in my heart? Yes, please. Heller wisely avoids making any of the players villains, which ups the ante for Elle. She’s our narrator; this is her story to tell. And the fact that she has invested in her marriage and it has been a happy one, makes her decision about what to do post-coitus, even more compelling. Then Heller reveals all the details of Elle’s life and the whole concoction is

I truly loved everything about this book. Some people have complained about all the time jumps: didn’t bother me in the least. If I had any complaints it would be 1) there are a lot of names and sometimes I was like “who’s that, again?” and 2) I love you, Reese, and I hope your production company is going to turn this puppy into a limited series *pretty please*, but I hate that your “Reese’s Book Club” sticker is not actually a sticker that I can take off and mars an otherwise gorgeous cover.

That said, The Paper Palace is a beautifully-written, page-turner about a woman who has to make a decision at a point in her life where she’s actually lived a life and has some real skin in the game.

Highly recommended.

Mirrorland – Carole Johnstone

When Cat’s identical twin sister El goes missing, Cat returns to Edinburgh to be with her husband, Ross, while they wait for news. She hasn’t seen or spoken to El or Ross for twelve years, but the reason for their estrangement takes a long time to reveal itself. Don’t worry: you’ll be riveted to the pages of Carole Johnstone’s debut Mirrorland for reasons far beyond why the sisters stopped speaking.

Growing up, El and Cat lived at 36 Westeryk Road, a “gray flat-stoned house with Georgian-bar windows” with their mother and maternal grandfather. Now El and Ross live there, and when Cat arrives she is astounded by how unchanged it is; “the hallway walls are crowded with familiar mounted plates…The tall oak telephone table and grandfather clock are exactly where they used to be as well…The smell is exactly the same….”

This house is filled with old ghosts for Cat. When she re-discovers the papered-over “door to Mirrorland” in the pantry, it unlocks fragments of memories. Mirrorland was

a magic place. Because, whatever else, I can’t deny that. This might once have only been a tradesman’s entrance, a means to a supercilious end; it might now be forgotten – only empty, drafty space and stone – but in between it was something else. Once upon a time, it was rich and full and alive. Gloriously frightening and steadfastly safe. Exciting beyond measure. Hidden. Special. Ours.

Cat and Ross refuse to believe that El is dead. Things get even creepier for Cat when she starts receiving anonymous cards at the house, and then, worse, emails from someone (Cat is convinced it is El; who else could it be?) providing her with clues for a treasure hunt. The clues lead to pages from a diary that El kept, and as Cat discovers them, she also starts to unlock the secrets of what happened in that house when she and El were children.

Mirrorland is like that hall of mirrors in a fun house. The rooms have names like Clown Café, and Donkshop. Then there’s Bedroom 3, a room that even as an adult Cat is afraid to enter because she hears “El shriek in [her] ear, Don’t go in! We can’t ever go in!” The twins’ childhood was filled with stories of pirates and make-believe, and as Cat deals with El’s disappearance, her complicated relationship with Ross, and the sharp edges of her childhood memories, it’s hard to know what is real and what is not.

I really enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, has several excellent twists and Stephen King himself says it’s “plotted with a watchmaker’s precision.” Not gonna argue with the master.

Highly recommended.