Meet Me at the Lake – Carley Fortune

Canadian writer Carley Fortune’s second novel, Meet Me at the Lake, doesn’t stray too far from the plot of her first book Every Summer After. In that book, childhood besties become more and are then separated by a bad decision, only to reunite many years later.

In this iteration, Fern Brookbanks meets Will Baker in Toronto just after she’s graduated with her BBA. He’s an artist who has been hired to paint a mural at the coffee shop where Fern works.

Guys this hot were the worst. Cocky, self-absorbed, dull. Plus, he was tall. Hot plus tall meant he’d be completely insufferable.

Except, Will is not insufferable; he’s actually pretty great. He suggests a tour of Toronto before he heads back to Vancouver and she heads home to Hunstville, where she’s about to start working at the family business, a resort on the lake. The problem is, Fern is at a crossroad. She is pretty sure that’s not what she wants to do, even though that’s where her boyfriend of four years, Jamie, is. She has different dreams.

There is definitely a spark between Fern and Will, and they agree to meet in Muskoka in one year – except Will doesn’t show. Well, he does show, actually: nine years late.

Fortune offers readers two timelines: the day Will and Fern spend together and then their reunion in present day. Will is nothing like Fern remembers him, except that he’s still tall and hot. Instead of being an artist, he’s some sort of consultant who was apparently hired by Fern’s mother Maggie, to help breathe new life into the resort. He is both Will and not Will, but Fern still feels the crazy chemistry she felt all those years ago. What’s a girl to do?

The things I liked about the book are the same things I liked about Every Summer After. Canadian settings (I have friends in Huntsville, though I have never been), and references just make me happy. There are some fun characters in the book; I particularly liked the Roses, a couple who have been coming to the resort Fern’s whole life and “have hosted a Sunday cocktail hour at Cabin 15” since Fern was born and Peter, the pastry chef and Fern’s surrogate father.

The story itself, vague details of running a lodge and lots of food talk, is mildly diverting. But that’s not why you read this sort of book anyway. We’re here for the romance and I am guessing, based on the book’s massive popularity – shooting to the top of the NYT’s best sellers list when it was released – that most everyone loves that aspect of it. Like with her first book, it just didn’t quite work for me.

But maybe that’s just me. I like angst. Will and Fern had a day, a really special day from all accounts, but then ten years later Fern is almost immediately ready to put that in the past because Will is there to work with her and she needs him to do that to save a business she didn’t even want anything to do with ten years ago -and yes, I get it people/circumstances change. And he’s tall. And hot. Their reunion just felt a little too easy and the bumps, when they arrive, come out of nowhere, and are all resolved with a little bit of familial exposition.

I didn’t hate this book. It was 50 pages too long, but it was easy to read. I didn’t feel annoyed when I was done reading, but I also didn’t feel that post-romance swoon. If you’re not going to break my heart – which is actually what I’d prefer – at least I don’t want to read Erotica 101. That’s mean: this book is definitely better than that, really, but it didn’t 100% scratch my romance itch even though I liked both main characters just fine. Still, a great book for your beach bag.

The Hunted – Roz Nay

I was hooked from the very start of Canadian writer Roz Nay’s novel The Hunted.

A hand over my mouth wakes me, the skin of it tinny with metal and salt.

“Stevie,” he whispers, his voice hoarse. “It’s not safe here. You’re not safe.”

Stevie and Jacob are high school sweethearts who have left their small-town Maine home in search of adventure and respite from the death of Stevie’s grandmother, a loss that meant that she is out of a job and a place to live. Now, at twenty-four, they’ve landed in Africa, where Jacob has taken a job as a dive instructor at GoEco, which is located on an island south of Zanzibar.

Stevie is clearly on tenterhooks and her first few days in Africa do nothing to settle her nerves. Nothing is like it is back home. On her first night at a hostel, another traveler tells her that “You can’t trust anyone.”

Then they meet Leo and Tasmin, a beautiful British couple. We know Leo isn’t to be trusted because he is the other narrator.

They seemed new. Vulnerable. I have to admit, I felt an almost immediate fondness for them both.

It’s interesting to read a cat and mouse thriller when the cat is identified so early on; you’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. As the novel moves on, we get to learn a little bit about both Leo and Stevie – seems they both have some carefully guarded secrets.

Although things sort of fell apart for me once the foursome arrived in Rafiki and the machinations seemed a little over-the-top, I still enjoyed the read.

This is my second novel (Our Little Secret) by Nay. I will definitely continue to read what she writes.

Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute – Talia Hibbert

I am not really a straight-up romance reader and if I do read them, I tend to like them angsty rather than sunny and sweet. Talia Hibbert’s first YA novel Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute definitely falls in the sweet category, but I am okay with that because this book is as charming as heck.

Seventeen-year-olds Celine Bangura and Bradley Graeme can barely stand the sight of each other. The two are classmates at Rosewood Academy, a school somewhere near Nottingham, England. Celine makes TikTok videos about UFOs and vaccines and has amassed a bit of a following. Brad is a football (aka soccer) player who hangs with the cool kids. Celine makes her disdain for Brad well known from the start.

People like them – “popular” people who think sports and looks and external approval are a valid replacement for actual personality – ironically don’t have the social skills to deal with anyone outside their golden circle. I should know.

Celine has “always believed he is fake and false and entirely made of earth-destroying plastic“.

Brad’s feelings regarding Celine are equally disdainful. She’s a “terrible, horrible person who I absolutely can’t stand.”

It wasn’t always been this way, though. Their mothers are besties and so were they until they were fourteen. Then something happened and now the two give each other the evil eye and if they do have to talk it’s only to trade pointed barbs.

An accident puts them on each other’s radar and then they both end up going for the same scholarship, which requires them to participate in a two-part survival course. Neither of them is particularly interested in the great outdoors, but both of them would benefit from the money for different reasons.

Celine is competitive and driven, especially by her need to shame her father who “ditched [her] for his second family ten years ago and [she hasn’t] seen him since.” Brad’s family could afford the tuition, but the scholarship means that he could afford single accommodations, which is something Brad desperately wants for reasons I won’t spoil here. Suffice to say, these teenagers – besides being really smart and funny – have baggage and secrets they are keeping from themselves, their families and even each other. They have built walls around themselves in order to protect themselves from the rough weather known as adolescence.

Highly Suspicious and Unfairly Cute is definitely tropey. There’s enemies-to-lovers, and close proximity, for sure. But in every other way, this is a refreshing, funny and sweet story of two teenagers trying to figure out what they want their lives to look like. I absolutely adored both of the main characters. Their banter was often laugh-out-loud funny and even though I knew what the outcome of this whole thing was going to be right from the very start I was delighted to go along for their swoony ride.

Highly recommended.


The Guncle – Steven Rowley

Everyone should have a guncle (gay uncle/ GUP/gay uncle Patrick) like Patrick. He’s the single, but not by choice, good-looking, middle-aged – well, 43 – famous former star of a sitcom, The People Upstairs, which ran for nine seasons and provides him with more money than he needs. He’s even won a Golden Globe. He currently lives in a swanky part of Palm Springs, spending his days doing exactly what he wants – which is mostly avoiding his agent and trying to stay out of the public eye.

Then his sister-in-law, Sara, dies. Although Patrick hadn’t seen her in a while, they’d once been close. In fact, he knew her before his brother Greg did. Patrick races to the East coast to be with his family and it’s then that Greg tells him that he’s an addict and he needs Patrick to take care of the children for the summer while he goes to rehab in California. It has to be Patrick and not their older sister, Clara, who takes them because as Greg explains “The only way this is going to work, the only way I’m going to be able to do this, is if I know they’re nearby. They’re my strength.”

Patrick isn’t exactly father material, but he loves his brother and he loved Sara and so he agrees to take nine-year-old Maisie and six-year-old Grant back home with him. Thus begins a summer of healing, not just for the kids but for Patrick, too, who is still mourning the loss of his partner, Joe.

Understandably, Maisie and Grant are shell-shocked by the loss of their mother, but they are also children who need daily care and attention. They ask irritating questions, have peculiar eating habits, and need his undivided attention. In the early days, Patrick imagines scenarios that would allow someone else to take over the caretaking duties he feels ill-prepared to manage on his own. But as the summer goes along, the three fall into a rhythm that is endearing and frequently funny.

The Guncle is not without its charms, for sure. If it was perhaps a tad schmaltzy, it can certainly be forgiven. It tackles the difficult subject of grief, manages to ring true regarding sibling relationships, even the prickly ones, and ultimately lands on the side of family is everything. It was an enjoyable read.

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.