732E19BC-CA2D-4623-B4E1-EA31B053BDE9It’s probably every parent’s worst nightmare: your child just doesn’t come home one day. That’s the premise of Jane Shemilt’s debut The Daughter.

Jenny is a successful family doctor in Bristol. She’s married to Ted, also a physician. Together they parent twins, Ed and Theo, 17, and Naomi, 15.  Life is busy for the family, which means that sometimes things slip through the cracks. Pretty much every parent  can relate to that. Things are particularly hectic right now because Naomi is starring in her school’s production of  West Side Story, and she is always dashing off.

But on the night before the last performance, Naomi doesn’t come home. She doesn’t respond to her mother’s frantic phone calls. She’s not at the theatre or the place she’d told her mother she’d be. She’s not with her friends.

The Daughter is a page-turner, for sure, but it is also a meditation on modern marriage, parenting, and the fine balancing act of having a career and a family. Jenny is so convinced that she understands her daughter, her sons, her marriage, but it turns out there are cracks everywhere.  Jenny feels blindsided by her daughter’s disappearance and by the fissures which suddenly appear in her domestic life.

If I was asked, I would say she was happy, that Ted and I were as well. I would say we were all perfectly happy.

The novel’s narrative isn’t straight forward. We are given glimpses into Jenny’s life just before Naomi leaves, and then several months later when she has taken herself to Dorset, to the family’s cottage. In these passages, we see how Naomi’s disappearance has affected Jenny and those around her. It’s not that Jenny’s life has come to a complete standstill, but certain aspects of her life have been derailed. She has not given up all hope that Naomi will be found and her grief is palpable.

But it not only Jenny’s grief that drives the narrative. Her husband also suffers. “I look for her everywhere I go,” he tells Jenny months after Naomi’s disappearance. “Don’t give up,” he tells her. “Don’t ever give up. I still think we’ll find her.” Jenny’s sons also suffer under the horrible weight of this loss.

Shemilt handles all their grief and a plot that might have proved unwieldy with a great deal of finesse. I raced to the end, which was both heartbreaking and unexpected.

 

 

155356C2-E75D-4FCF-8F1B-CEB6EB1DA2B9Eleanor Oliphant, the titular character of Gail Honeyman’s debut novel Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, is not like anyone else you have likely met before. She has worked in the same office for the last nine years, she has no friends and she lives on a diet of vodka and pizza or pasta and pesto. Her life is structured and predictable, right down to her weekly calls from “Mummy.”

It doesn’t take long to figure out that Eleanor is actually not completely fine. She is pretty much the loneliest person I have ever met. She has no aptitude for social niceties; she says whatever pops into her head. It makes it difficult for her co-workers to warm up to her. Her mother is particularly harsh.   When she wins tickets to a concert and asks one of her office mates to accompany her, she becomes the butt of the joke because as everyone knows “she’s mental.”

Enter Raymond. He’s the new office IT guy. When he comes to fix Eleanor’s computer she notes that “he was barely taller than me, and was wearing green training shoes, ill-fitting denim trousers and a T-shirt showing a cartoon dog lying on tops of its kennel. It was stretched taut against a burgeoning belly….All of his visible skin, both face and body, was very pink.”

It’s funny that Eleanor dismisses Raymond as she has, similarly, been dismissed by others. She is aware of her own appearance, her “face a scarred palimpsest of fire. A nose that’s too small and eyes that are too big. Ears: unexceptional.” But Raymond doesn’t seem to see Eleanor’s appearance – or care much either way, at least, and is persistent and the two become unlikely friends.

The stuff that comes out of Eleanor’s mouth is often funny. She has no filter and doesn’t seem to take offence to the things she hears, even when she is the subject of ridicule. When an office mate makes a cruel joke at her expense, Eleanor admits that she “laughed at that one, actually.” Her world is very black and white. When she and Raymond stumble upon an elderly man in distress, Eleanor is tasked with keeping him calm.

…don’t worry, you won’t be lying here in the middle of the street for long. There’s no need to be anxious; medical care is completely free of charge in this country, and the standard is generally considered to be among the best in the world. You’re a fortunate man, I mean, you probably wouldn’t want to fall and bump your head in, say, the new state of South Sudan, given its current political and economic situation.

Oh, Eleanor.

It is Eleanor’s friendship with Raymond that starts to crack open her insular, dysfunctional life. The more we know of her story, the more amazing she becomes. Eleanor Oliphant will stay with you long after you’ve closed the final pages and you will leave her knowing that she will actually be completely (mostly) fine.

 

9BC8A38C-E581-4BB6-A29F-B5302D5437FCAlthough I didn’t lead the life of debauchery that Tess, the first-person narrator of Stephanie Danler’s novel Sweetbitter lives, I did spend most of my twenties working in the service industry.  Those were the best of times and the worst of times. For Tess, too.

Tess arrives in New York City without a plan. She’s 22-years-old and she left home to escape something – although she is perhaps not quite sure what:

The twin pillars of football and church? The low, faded homes on childless cul-de-sacs? Mornings of the Gazette and boxed doughnuts? The sedated, sentimental middle of it. It didn’t matter. I would never know exactly, for my life, like most, moved only imperceptibly and definitively forward.

She moves in with the friend of a friend, a guy with an apartment in Williamsburg. And then she scores an interview at New York’s most famous restaurant, a place in Union Square. Tess has no real experience (because you can’t count the coffee shop she worked at back home) and when Howard, the restaurant’s general manager asks her why she chose NY, Tess says “It really didn’t feel like a choice Where else is there to go?” She smiles too much; sweats through her sundress. And lands a job.

This job changes Tess. In some ways it chews her up and spits her out. She encounters lifers who make a lot of money – so much money, it’s understandable why they’ve chosen this life as their career.

One of these people is Simone – an ageless goddess who seems to know everything. Tess develops something of a crush on her, longs to be like her, hangs on her every word.

“Tasting is a farce,” Simone tells her. “The only way to know a wine is to take a few hours with it.”

Then there’s Jake, possessor of the pale, spectral eyes. His total disregard for her traps Tess in his orbit.

Of course, there are loads of other characters at the restaurant: the gay Russian, the cranky waitresses, the handsome owner who tells the staff that “The goal…is to make  the guests feel that we are on their side. Any business transaction – actually any life transaction – is negotiated by how you are making the other person feel.”

Tess  starts as a “backwaiter”, a job I’d call server assistant. It’s hot, thankless work, but Tess is a quick learner. She’s soon part of the family – drinking and snorting coke until the wee hours, sleeping, and doing it all again and again.

I had a few summers like that – without the coke snorting. I do remember running from the restaurant where I worked down to another bar and knocking back a drink during my fifteen-minute break. That was about as wild as it got for me. Still, I could relate to Tess and her topsy-turvey lifestyle. Up late into the night, sleeping late into the day. Always cash in your pocket.

Sweetbitter will definitely remind anyone who’s worked in the the restaurant business of those crazy days when those “loose, slippery bills” filled your pockets. But it is a business that can ruin you. Tess says that “What I didn’t see was the time had severe brackets around it. Within those brackets nothing else existed. Outside of them, all you could remember was a blur of temporary madness.”

I very much enjoyed my time with Tess. And I am very happy that those days are behind me.

Never-List-Blog-pictureThe Never List never really got off the ground for me, although the premise had a lot of potential. Koethi Zan’s debut novel is the story of Sarah, a reclusive young woman who is still suffering from the psychological scars of having been held captive by a sadist, Dr. Jack Derber.

There were four of us down there for the first thirty-two months and eleven days of our captivity. And then, very suddenly and without warning, there were three. Even though the fourth person hadn’t made any noise at all in several months, the room got very quiet when she was gone. For a long time after that, we sat in silence, in the dark, wondering which of us would be next in the box.

That was ten years ago. Now Sarah is living a quiet life as Caroline. She’s an actuary in New York City (specifically chosen so that there would always be a lot of people around). Her therapy is at a standstill, she doesn’t have any meaningful relationships (unless you count Jim McCordy, an FBI agent) and she rarely leaves her apartment. Every so often Jack Derber sends Sarah a letter from prison, and it’s the latest letter and the fact that Jack’s parole hearing is coming up that sends Sarah digging into her past.

The novel’s title comes from Sarah and her best friend Jennifer’s ‘never list.’  The two girls, friends since childhood, had compiled a list of all the things they should avoid in order to lead a safe life: “never go to the campus library alone at night, never park more than six spaces from your destination, never trust a stranger with a flat tire. Never, never, never.”

Sarah’s decision to speak at Jack’s parole hearing, even though the thought of facing Jack again fills her with dread, is prompted by her love for Jennifer, who was the girl in the box and whose body was never recovered from Jack’s remote house, where the girls were kept chained in the cellar.

So, the ingredients for a creepy, twisted thriller, are certainly there, but there are lots of things that didn’t work. For one, too many characters and sub plots that just all come together in a rather unsatisfying way in the end. Also, Sarah’s character development was unbelievable. Can the reader really be expected to believe that a woman who is afraid to drive alone in the dark, will actually lead her fellow survivors back to the very place where they’d been held prisoner? Without police? Cue eye roll. And these reserves of strength come out of the blue.

Jack Derber is only seen through the eyes of other characters, so he is never really a threat. Whatever he was doing to those women – none of it is described. I don’t necessarily need to hear all the graphic details – I’ve got a pretty good imagination – but other than ‘the rack’ it’s all pretty vague. Likewise, a trip to a BDSM club is pretty vanilla. And although there is clearly something going on, with Jack Derber still safely behind bars Sarah (and the reader) hardly needs to worry about him.

Some readers will probably be genuinely freaked out by The Never List. For me, it was just okay.

Columbine. Newtown. Parkland. The fact that we know these towns because of the school shootings that happened there is shocking. According to Everytown there have been 302 school shootings in America since 2013. True, not all of these incidents have resulted in death, but the fact that someone brought a gun into a school is pretty horrifying.

For comparisons sake, there have been seven school shootings in Canada with a total of 28 fatalities. (And I’m not talking since 2013, I’m talking in total.) The first happened at a high school in Brampton in 1975. The worst happened at École Polytechnique in 1989 where 14 women were killed. The most recent happened in La Loche, Saskatchewan in 2016 where four people were killed and seven were injured.

I know that guns (and gun control and 2nd amendment rights) are a contentious bowl of soup, but, people! Seriously.

thisiswhereMarieke Nijkamp tackles gun violence in her compelling (and heartbreaking) YA novel this is where it ends.

Four narrators tell the story of what happens when a student locks the entire student body (almost) into the gym and starts shooting.

There’s Claire, a senior track star who isn’t in the gym because she’s training for an upcoming track meet.

There’s Autumn, a dancer who can’t wait to blow her popsicle stand of a town, a backwater named – ironically – Opportunity.

There’s Sylv, a girl who would sacrifice anything to keep those she loves safe, including Autumn.

And there’s Tomas, Sylv’s twin, who is breaking into the principal’s office with his friend Fareed when the chaos start.

What do these four people have in common? That would be Tyler, Autumn’s brother, a beautiful but damaged boy who clearly feels he has nothing left to care about. But really, Ty’s motives for shooting up the school don’t matter, really. The terror is real. The violence is real.

The action of the novel takes place over the course of 54 minutes. In that time, we come to understand how these five students are connected. We also learn about their hopes and dreams; we see their bravery and their fear; we root for them and we mourn with them. It’s pretty compelling stuff especially now when school shootings seem to be happening with alarming regularity.

Nijkamp was smart to let us into these character’s heads. They reveal secrets they’ve kept from each other – mostly out of love. They admit to weaknesses and also dig deep for reserves of bravery and strength. And, they even find compassion.

“Grief is one big, gaping hole, isn’t it?” Sylv says to Ty.

I don’t know if he hears me, but my words are as much for myself as for him. “It’s everywhere and all consuming. Some days you think you can’t go on because the only thing waiting for you is more despair. Some days you don’t want to go on because it’s easier to give up than to get hurt again.

this is where it ends is a timely book with an important message.

 

fierceJoan and her four-year-old son Lincoln are enjoying a late afternoon in the zoo when Gin Phillip’s novel Fierce Kingdom begins. It’s almost five o’clock and they are in the Dinosaur Discovery Pit playing with Lincoln’s menagerie of action figure heroes and villains.

She and Lincoln come here sometimes after she picks him up from school – they alternate between the zoo and the library and the parks and the science museum – and she steers him to the woods when she can. Here there are crickets, or something that sounds like crickets, and birds calling and leaves rustling but no human sounds except for Lincoln calling out his dialogue.

With only a few moments left before the zoo closes, Joan and Lincoln make their way to the exit. Joan has a moment of prescience when she imagines “camping in the zoo overnight, maybe even intentionally hiding back there, going to visit the animals in the pitch-black of midnight.” They are almost at the exit when Joan notices the bodies (at first she thinks they are toppled over scarecrows, but no…) and the man in dark clothes, carrying a rifle. Joan grabs Lincoln and they run. For the next three hours the pair are trapped in the zoo with armed men intent on killing them – and anyone else they find.

The scariest thing about Fierce Kingdom is probably that in the current climate it’s not such a far-fetched premise that innocent people are gunned down in what is supposed to be a safe place. I live in Canada and we don’t have the same love affair with our firearms as Americans do, but even so, it’s hard not to be paranoid about being  at the wrong place at the wrong time. Joan might have taken Lincoln to any one of their regular spots – but today they are at the zoo.

Joan’s number one priority is to get them to safety and for a big chunk of the novel they hide out in an old porcupine enclosure “deep in the twists and turns of the primate house. It does not look fit for humans, and that is what strikes her as perfect about it.”  Everything Joan does, every decision she makes, is about protecting Lincoln, and her ingenuity and bravery will likely strike a chord with anyone who has kids. Well, with anyone, really, who has a desire to live.

Phillips keeps the focus  – for the most part – on Joan and Lincoln, but she does introduce a handful of other characters (Kailynne, a teenager who works in a concession stand; Margaret Powell, an older school teacher; Robby Montgomery, a young man with a connection to the shooters), which keeps the narrative from being too insular.

As Joan works to keep Lincoln safe, she ponders the peculiarities of motherhood…the myriad of ways that harm might come to our children. As any parent knows, you can’t think about that stuff or you’ll go crazy; you’d never let your children leave the house.

Fierce Kingdom  is a book about what it means to be a parent wrapped up in a page-turning thriller.

Party girl Catherine Bailey meets handsome and mysterious Lee Brightman at a nightclub. C’mon, ladies. Nothing darkest corner good ever comes from meeting some guy at a nightclub – especially a guy who seems too good to be true. But this meet cute is what sets Elizabeth Haynes’ crazy stalker story in motion. There are two narrative threads in Into the Darkest Corner. There’s the unraveling of Cathy and Lee’s romance (if you can call it that),  and there’s Cathy’s subsequent escape from Lee’s clutches and her attempt to live her life.

Post-Lee Cathy lives a quiet life in a flat in London. Just getting out of the house causes her severe anxiety.

I shut the front door firmly and turned the lock, checking that the bolt had shot home by rattling the door a few times. With my fingertips I traced around the edges of the doorframe, feeling that the door was flush with the frame. I turned the doorknob six times, to make sure it was properly closed. One, two, three, four, five, six. Then the doorframe again. Then the doorknob, six times. One, two, three, four, five, six.  Then the lock. Once, and again. Then the doorframe. Lastly the knob, six times. I felt the relief that comes when I managed to do this properly.

Although it may be hard to reconcile this Cathy with the girl who admitted that the best part of a night out is “finding some dark corner of the club and being fucked against a wall”, her transformation won’t seem so far-fetched once she tells the story of how her Prince Charming turned into a sadistic psychopath. (Well, ‘turned into’ is a bit of a misnomer; Lee was always a sadistic psycho.)

There’s nothing new in Into the Darkest Corner. Readers know from the beginning how the story will unfold; the only things missing are the particulars. Haynes metes out the details in a timely fashion and it’s a page-turner, for sure, but Cathy isn’t a particularly likeable character. Sure, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her; she has suffered terribly, but I just didn’t love her. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Because Stuart does.

Stuart’s the handsome, single child psychologist who moves into the flat upstairs and very willingly dives head-first into Cathy’s crazy. It’s perhaps the teensiest bit contrived, but without the introduction of someone in her life, Cathy would probably still be triple (times two) checking the locks on her door.

Into the Darkest Corner is not the worst of the genre, for sure, and I definitely wouldn’t be opposed to reading more books by this author.