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.

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.

Everything We Didn’t Say – Nicole Baart

There’s a certain type of book I really like. It’s a dual timeline, family secrets, coming-of-age, angsty hybrid that, if well-written, makes my reading heart happy. Everything We Didn’t Say by Nicole Baart ticked all the boxes for me.

Juniper (June) Baker has returned to Jericho, Iowa after 15 years of exile. She’s come home to help an old friend in the town library, but this is also an opportunity to repair some relationships, particularly with her brother, Jonathan, and her 13-year-old daughter, Willa, who has been living with Juniper’s parents since she was born.

Why are these relationships damaged? Well, that part of the story happened fifteen years ago, when June had just graduated from high school, was flirting with Sullivan, the youngest son of the town’s richest farmer, and Beth and Cal Murphy, a middle-aged couple who live in the farm across the lake from Juniper and her family, are brutally murdered, a crime for which Jonathan is suspected but never convicted.

One of the reasons that Juniper is anxious to return to Jericho is because someone on the WWW is talking about a podcast aimed at proving, after all these years, that Jonathan is, in fact, responsible for the Murphys’ deaths. Juniper aims to prove the opposite, but doing so means revisiting that long-ago summer when everything seemed to change, particularly between her and her brother. Once their sibling bond seemed like “a tangible thing, a thread woven from shared experiences,” but as the summer lengthens, Jonathan becomes secretive and moody.

There’s a lot of moving parts in Baart’s story. Of the two timelines, I liked the one set in the past the best. June is heading off to college at the end of the summer, and she knows she is leaving this life behind. Her best friend, Ashley, is crazy about Sullivan, but June finds herself impossibly attracted to him and it appears the feeling is mutual. That’s a disaster waiting to happen. There are other things happening at home, too, things June doesn’t understand.

All of that seems uncomplicated, though, when compared to the present day. Shortly after she arrives, Jonathan – who seems about to share a long-held secret – is in a life-threatening accident, She bumps into Sullivan, and that’s confusing. And a local cop seems to be digging into the Murphy’s cold case. Oh, and her daughter seems to hate her – which stands to reason since she all but abandoned her.

Everything We Didn’t Say has lots to recommend it and although I did guess one significant plot twist, I enjoyed my time in Jericho, and looked forward to reading this book, which I haven’t said about a book for a while.

Two thumbs up.

Malibu Rising – Taylor Jenkins Reid

Oh dear.

I loved Daisy Jones and the Six. Loved loved it. I was convinced that Taylor Jenkins Reid and I were going to be book besties. Then I bought One True Loves. Okay, I thought, well that was one of her earlier titles – a book she wrote way before the juggernaut success of Daisy Jones. Malibu Rising came after Daisy Jones and so it was bound to offer up the same sort of fast-paced, character-driven narrative right?

Right?

The Riva siblings, Nina, Jay, Hud and Kit, come from Hollywood royalty. Their father is Mick Riva – who makes an appearance in Daisy Jones – a superstar musician. He’s also a philandering dead-beat, who leaves his wife, June, when she is pregnant for Kit. I mean, I guess he’s charming in the beginning, which is why June – a young girl who works at her parent’s Malibu take-out falls for him. But his pretty promises don’t amount to much and June turns to alcohol to numb the pain.

It’s Nina, the eldest Riva child, who steps in when her mother can no longer keep it together. It’s because of her that her younger siblings are successful. Then, someone sees her surfing and she’s so beautiful she gets some sort of contract and suddenly she’s everyone’s poster-girl. That’s how she ends up married to tennis pro Brandon Randall. One year later, she’s been dumped.

The action of Malibu Rising takes place over the course of one day – the biggest day of the year: the Riva’s annual party. If you know where it is, you’re invited. But simmering beneath all the party excitement are all these secrets and resentments and lost dreams, and you best be sure those things are all going to come to the surface and burn that fucker to the ground. Literally and figuratively because as metaphors go, the fire in this book is not subtle.

Through flashbacks, Reid unspools June and Mick’s romance and marriage and Mick’s rise to fame. We watch June’s disintegration when Mick leaves her, her renewed hope when he returns. Then, of course, he leaves her again. We learn about the children, their unbreakable bond, their surfing prowess (because that’s what you do at Malibu, you surf, right?) We learn about Nina’s struggle to keep it together, the sacrifices she makes. Her quick-fire romance. Her separation. All of this in an effort to help us understand – I dunno – the familial bonds that nothing can break?

This book is long. Like almost 400 pages long. And I didn’t give a hoot about a single character. Early on, when it was June and Mick’s story I was, like, okay. This isn’t what I thought it was going to be, but it’s readable. But like with One True Loves, Malibu Rising is all tell. And all the tell is supposed to get us to the big, I dunno, party? So that when it all comes to a head we’re going to actually care. Yeah, no.

Suddenly we’re introduced to all these new characters, who have had sweet FA to do with the Riva story: best friends out of the wood work, actors (some made up, some real names air dropped in) who show up for colour, I guess. The woman Brandon ran off with, Carrie Soto (who is apparently getting a book of her own), makes a crazy appearance on the Riva lawn, someone who might be a sibling arrives, there’s models and producers and the people who work at the family diner. It’s chaos. Cocaine is passed around like hor d’oeuvres, gun shots are fired, plates are being thrown like frisbees and people are literally swinging on chandeliers.

And what are the Riva children doing? Why, they’re down on the beach with Papa Riva, whom they haven’t seen or heard from in years, having a “come to Jesus” share session.

It’s, frankly, ridiculous.

I would say thus ends my short-lived love affair with Reid, but apparently The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo is worth the read, so I may bite the bullet and give it a go.

This book, however, was a colossal waste of my precious reading time.

The Maid – Nita Prose

Back-to-back books with autistic main characters – what are the chances? I just read The Kiss Quotient, and I also recently finished Nita Prose’s debut The Maid.

In this novel, 25-year-old Molly Gray (and don’t worry, even Molly sees the joke) works as a maid at the Regency Grand Hotel. It is a position that she is very proud of because “Never in [her] life did [she] think [she’d] hold such a lofty position”. She loves everything about her job, her “perfectly stocked maid’s trolley”, the scent of the hotel, a “mélange of ladies’ fine perfumes, the dark musk of the leather armchairs, the tangy zing of lemon polish”; even her uniform gives her pleasure, a joy to see it hanging on her locker every morning, her “second skin – clean, disinfected, newly pressed.”

Her job, her ability to do it as well as she does, makes her confident because

The truth is, I often have trouble with social situations; it’s as though everyone is playing an elaborate game with complex rules they all know, but I’m always playing for the first time. I make etiquette mistakes with alarming regularity, offend when I mean to compliment, misread body language, say the wrong thing at the wrong time.

Raised by her grandmother, Molly is alone in the world now. It isn’t always easy for her to know who to trust, and that’s how she gets into trouble when one of the VIP guests at the hotel turns up dead.

There’s nothing wrong with The Maid. It’s like a locked room mystery, or a game of Clue. Someone killed Mr. Black and the someone to find him is Molly. There’s a whole cast of characters in the hotel: the manager, the hunky bartender, the immigrant dishwasher, the friendly doorman, the sneaky head maid. The fact that she trusts the wrong people to help her is certainly no surprise given her inability to read people. The mystery isn’t all that sophisticated, and the ending is so sweet it’ll make your teeth ache.

I feel like this is a book that’s gotten a lot of buzz because the main character is neurodiverse. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Just not my cup of tea.

The Kiss Quotient – Helen Hoang

Stella Lane is a task-oriented, intelligent, wealthy single 30-year-old. If it weren’t for her mother badgering her about settling down, Stella might have been content to focus on her career as an econometrician. (Yeah, I’d never heard of it either. It’s a person who uses “statistics and calculus to model economic systems.”) Stella has had exactly three sexual encounters in her life, each more disappointing than the last.

Her latest sexual experience had been with one of her mother’s blind dates. He’d been good looking – she had to give him that – but his sense of humor had confused her. […] When he straight-out asked her if she wanted to have sex with him, she’d been caught completely off guard. Because she hated to say no, she’d said yes. There’d been kissing, which she didn’t enjoy. He’d tasted like the lamb he’d had for dinner. She didn’t like lamb.

Stella figures she needs practice in the sex department, and so she hires an escort, Michael Phan, a Vietnamese-Swedish hunk, to teach her the ropes – so to speak. For Stella, Michael is “by far the finest male specimen she’d ever laid eyes on.” For Michael, Stella is quite unlike anyone he’s ever met.

The hook for Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient is that Stella is on the autism spectrum. She doesn’t like loud noises, strong scents, any disruption to the routine that makes her feel safe. She says what she thinks and has trouble reading social cues. Career-wise, she’s respected and successful, but as she tells Michael on their first date “I’m awful at…what you do. But I want to get better. I think I can get better if someone would teach me.”

I doubt you will ever meet two characters as sweet and wholesome as Stella and Michael and yet the sex in this book is on the face-fanning steamy side. Turns out, Michael is extremely good at his job, but more than that, he genuinely likes Stella and as their relationship morphs from a pay-for-sex gig into friendship things start to get complicated for the both of them. Suddenly, Michael is taking Stella home to meet his family and revealing his private life in a way that is very unprofessional. I’m not sure the complication at the end was necessary (after all, everyone and their dog could see these two were CRAZY for each other) but it hardly matters because at that point you’ll be all-in.

The Kiss Quotient is smut with two delightful central characters and if that’s your thing, enjoy.