Gallows Hill – Darcy Coates

When Margot Hull’s parents, owners of Gallows Hill Winery, die suddenly, they leave their estate to their only daughter, Margot. She hasn’t been to Gallows Hill in over a decade, and has, in fact, not had any contact with her parents in many years. Raised by her maternal grandmother, Margot knows nothing about wine and very little about the property that has been in her family for generations. Now it’s hers and she has to decide whether or not she wants to keep it.

Her parents’ manager, Kant, takes her to Gallows Hill after the funeral and thus begins a very long, very slow story about the house and its bloody history. Gallows Hill “rose above her, broad and dark and heavy with shadows” and Margot feels nothing when she first sees it again. She has no memories of the place and there is nothing personal inside that connects her to its many rooms.

Darcy Coates’ Gallows Hill is what I would call an old-fashioned ghost story. It doesn’t take very long for things to start to go awry, but Kant doesn’t bother to tell her about the house’s menacing history that first night. He makes her a cup of coffee, tells her that he was the one who discovered her parents and that’s about it.

Margot’s first night in the house is marked by a few creepy discoveries: a strange life-sized effigy in the living room, a house with many halls and rooms, a lock on a window in what she assumes had once been her room, a mirror which reveals her face with

“skin [that] had shrunken and puckered. Swollen wrinkles spread over the cheeks and forehead. The eyelids had peeled back. Her eyes were swollen round orbs, barely fitting inside the sockets, bulging and bloated and swallowed in a sick gray tinge. Her lips were shrunken away from the teeth, exposing grimacing yellow bone and gray, pulpy gums.”

It takes a long time for Gallows Hill to reveal its secrets, and for patient readers who like a slow burn…good enough. But for me, the story wasn’t scary, the house wasn’t scary and Margot – a sort of mousey character to begin with – just wasn’t all that believable. Because the action doesn’t really ramp up until the last third, the first two thirds is a lot of Margot creeping around using her phone’s flashlight, being scared of just about every sound she hears.

It’s too long, but I think many readers would likely enjoy it.

Much Ado About You – Samantha Young

Straight-up romance is not normally my go-to genre, mostly because I find it difficult to relate to the 25-35 year-old hotties who normally populate said stories. I am a romantic at heart, but I am also a divorced 61-year-old and I come to these stories with a lot of baggage. I guess I want the characters to have some baggage, too. A much younger colleague at school told me about Much Ado About You by Samantha Young and I liked the sound of it because the protagonist is bookish and the story takes place in Northern England.

Thirty-three-year-old Evie Starling has just had her heart broken: twice. First, the guy she’d been SnapChatting with for months ghosts her, and then she’s passed over – again – for a promotion at the magazine where she works. She’s had it with Chicago and decides to shake up her life by taking an extended holiday in Alnster, Northumberland. She chooses Alnster because she sees an ad for Much Ado About Books, a cozy bookshop with a flat above where you stay while you run the bookstore. (There is a bookstore in Scotland that actually does this and it sounds like a dream vacation to me, too!)

On day one she meets Roane Robson, “the most beautiful man [she’d] ever seen”. The attraction is immediate and the two quickly become, well, friends. Evie has sworn off men, and this whole trip is so that she can figure out what she wants to do with her life. She doesn’t have time for Roane’s thick, dark hair, broad shoulders, warm brown eyes, white smile: you get it, the guy’s sex on a stick.

Evie is less than perfect – at least in her estimation.

At five foot ten, I was tall. In my four-inch heels, that put me at six foot two. But I didn’t think that was what bothered some guys. I had plentiful boobs, an ass, hips, and although I had a waist, it wasn’t super trim. Neither was my belly. Either guys loved my tall voluptuousness, or they labeled me fat.

As Evie settles into small town life, she and Roane settle into an easy friendship. That’s all they can be because Evie claims that that’s all she wants, although she certainly enjoys the eye candy that Roane provides her. The rest of the townsfolk welcome her with open arms – mostly. Evie loves running the bookshop and she loves getting into everyone’s business, so it would appear that this is a good move for her.

But, of course, the path of true love never did run smooth. Once her core starts throbbing for Roane, there’s no turning back. And once that line is crossed – although Young takes her time getting these two naked – it can’t just be smooth sailing. I found the reasons for their separation a little contrived, but you know as soon as this book starts how it’s all going to work out so whatever.

As far as romance goes, this is sweet, readable, with just a tad of tropey spice. I liked Evie and Roane; they were a great couple. I loved the setting and her bookstore gig is my dream. Did all the pieces fit together just a little too perfectly? Probably. But I don’t think you read this sort of book looking for angst.

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.

His & Hers – Alice Feeney

I had high hopes for Alice Feeney’s thriller His & Hers, probably because somewhere I read that it was un-put-down-able and I have had a difficult time settling into any book these days. (I blame A Little Life , and not in a good way.)

Feeney’s story is narrated by Anna Andrews, a newsreader who has just been demoted and sent back to the field when the woman for who she was filling in returns from her maternity leave, and Detective Jack Harper, a cop in a small British town in Surrey, which is south of London.

When a woman shows up dead in the woods in, Anna is sent to cover the story and Jack is sent to investigate it. It’s clear from the very beginning that neither of them is a reliable narrator; neither of them is particularly subtle about the fact that they are withholding information. Jack is the first to crack, announcing that he has “never worked on the murder of someone I knew before. And I knew this woman well. I was with her last night.”

The dead woman isn’t the only relationship Jack wants to keep on the down-low. Turns out he and Anna have history, too, and it makes it hard for either of them to get on with the job. What follows, unfortunately is a lot of silliness and implausibility and people acting like idiots.

It takes a lot for a thriller to impress me. I often spot the twists coming from a mile away and although figuring things out before they are revealed doesn’t always mean that I won’t like the book, I just found Anna and Jack grating and between them and the clunky exposition (and ridiculous ending) I just can’t say this thriller is a must read.

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.

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.

Seven Days in June – Tia Williams

I flew through the first 100 pages of Tia Williams’s novel Seven Days in June. Was this going to be 2022’s The Paper Palace? I wondered.

Nope.

Eva Mercy is the author of the best selling erotica series Cursed. She’s a single mom living with her 12-year-old daughter Audre in Park Slope, Brooklyn. Except for the fact that the fifteenth installment of her witch – in – love – with – a – vampire series is due on her publisher’s desk in a week and she’s run out of steam, she has a fabulous life. Well, she does suffer from debilitating migraines and she does have a complicated relationship with her mother, Lizette. But otherwise, life’s good.

Then, there’s Shane Hall, reclusive award winning author who now spends his time trying to mentor at-risk youth, giving them the support he never had as a kid. He’s recently sober and as part of his recovery, he feels there is one wrong he has to right and it concerns Eva.

He decides the best thing to do is ambush her – after fifteen years – at the State of the Black Author event.

When a horror-movie character sees a ghost, she emits a bloodcurdling shriek. Claws at her cheeks. Runs for her life. Eva was trapped onstage in broad view of New York’s literary community, so she did none of those things. Instead, her hands went completely slack, and her microphone slipped to the floor with a heavy thunk.

For Eva, this was “the moment she’d always feared” but also “the moment she’d always anticipated.” Although he is still devastatingly beautiful – because of course he is – seeing him again shoots Eva straight back to twelfth grade, which is the last time she’d seen him.

Look, I have zero complaints about well-written romance novels. There was lots to like about Seven Days in June. I liked that it was set in NYC; I liked the fandom aspect of Eva’s novels; I liked Audre even though she sounded more like a grown-ass woman than a twelve year old.

Once Eva and Shane are reunited, it’s just a sex romp, really because – sure – two hot thirty-somethings are going to get “groiny” with one another because they have chemistry and feelings and history. But where’s the tension?

Their week together as high school seniors was meant to be some big meeting of the souls, but it was mostly a drug and alcohol fueled week crashing in someone’s empty mansion. I mean, is that the stuff epic romances are made of? Something happened that week, but it’s explained with a phone call. That was one of my issues with this book, actually, all the plot points that just felt like a way for the story to pivot. Ty. Eva’s family ring. For me, the book tried too hard to be more than the sum of its parts.

Seven Days in June is a sometimes funny, decently-written romance about two beautiful people who have sex. A lot. It is not ground-breaking.

Every Summer After – Carley Fortune

Persephone “Percy” Fraser is thirteen when her parents decide they want a getaway from their busy lives as U of T professors. Instead of buying a cottage in Muskoka like many of their friends, Percy’s father chooses the less developed Barry’s Bay “a sleepy, working-class village that transformed into a bustling tourist town in the summer.” Barry’s Bay, her father tells Percy is “real cottage country.”

Right next door live the Florek boys, 13-year-old, Sam, and his fifteen-year-old brother, Charlie.

It took eight hours for the Florek boys to find me. […] They were clearly related – both lanky and tanned – but their differences were just as plain. Whereas the older boy was smiling wide, scrubbed clean and clearly knew his way around a bottle of styling gel, the younger one was staring at his feet. a wavy tangle of hair falling haphazardly over his eyes.

This is the beginning of Carley Fortune’s novel Every Summer After, which begins seventeen years after that first summer meeting, and then unspools with a series of flashbacks depicting Percy and Sam’s friendship over the course of six summers, and culminates in something so horrible that they haven’t spoken in twelve years. When Charlie calls Percy to tell her that their mother has died, Percy does the only thing she can do: she returns to Barry’s Bay, even though it means that she must see Sam again.

I hate to poo-poo on a novel that seems to be universally adored, especially a debut and by a Canadian to boot. And besides, I didn’t hate this novel – there were lots of things about the book I loved. So let’s start there.

I loved:

The Canadian setting. I am not familiar with Barry’s Bay (apparently a real life place on Kamaniskeg Lake), but Fortune did a terrific job of evoking a real sense of time and place. Anyone who has ever spent time at a summer house (on a body of water or just away from everyday life) will understand that feeling of time stretching. It’s all water and sand and sunburned noses, and barbecues and endless days.

The childhood friendship between Percy and Sam. Although her mother is reluctant, at first, to let her daughter hang out with Sam, the two are quickly inseparable, bonding over movies and sharing their hopes and dreams. Teenaged Sam and Percy are delightful, and so is their friendship – made official with the ubiquitous friendship bracelets of the time.

The novel’s structure. I am a sucker for novels that jump back and forth between past and present. We know that something horrible happened and we know we’ll eventually find out the reason for the estrangement, but I love a novel that strings us along. For me, the parts of the book that were set in the past were more successful, though.

Which brings me to the bits that weren’t quite as successful for me.

Percy and Sam in the present. It’s Charlie that calls Percy to let her know about his mom and, of course, Percy doesn’t hesitate; of course she will return to Barry’s Bay. When she gets there, though, despite the wedge between her and Sam, he’s pretty much the first person she runs into on her walkabout the town, and for me, that reunion lacked any tension. Honestly, I was expecting angst out the wazoo, but instead

…he takes three giant strides toward me and wraps his arms around me so tight it’s like his large body is a cocoon around mine. He smells like sun and soap and something new that I don’t recognize.

I think we all expect that the couple will end up together, but I sort of also hope that they’re going to have to work at it a little harder than these two do. Their adult conversations (and they’re 30 now; Sam’s a doctor!) are very reminiscent of the conversations they had at 16-17.

And what did Percy do to cause the rift in the first place? Careful readers will figure it out pretty quickly and yes, people make mistakes. It’s just that – they didn’t speak in 12 years. That’s a long time for things to be resolved as quickly and easily as they are.

That’s my only gripe about the book, really. (And some of the writing is kind of Erotica 101-esque.) I would definitely read something else by this author and I would definitely recommend this book if you want a quick, sweet and sometimes steamy beach read.