The Chain – Adrian McKinty

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

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

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

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

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

But.

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

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

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

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

Later – Stephen King

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

Jamie Conklin sees dead people.

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

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

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

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

Us – David Nicholls

David Nicholls (One Day, Such Sweet Sorrow) is a master at peering into all the hidden corners of relationships. In Us, he tells the story of Douglas and Connie and their seventeen-year-old son, Albie. One night, Connie wakes Douglas up and drops a bombshell: “I think I want to leave you.”

Douglas and Connie have been married for two decades, a happy marriage, Douglas (our narrator) tells us, but certainly not without its problems. Connie’s news comes just as the family is about to set off on a “Grand Tour” of Europe in advance of Albie heading off to university. They decide to go anyway, and Douglas takes this as a hopeful sign; perhaps he will be able to win back his wife’s affection and repair his slightly wobbly relationship with Albie.

The fact was I loved my wife to a degree I found impossible to express, and so rarely did. While I didn’t dwell on the notion, I had presumed that we would end our lives together.

Douglas, a scientist, and Connie, an artist, seem like an unlikely pair, really. Douglas’s narrative mines their origin story (they met at a dinner party thrown by his younger sister) for all the details which will help the reader understand their relationship and Douglas, wisely, doesn’t gloss over the fact that he is often pedantic and, perhaps, less empathetic than others. Maybe it is the scientist in him, but Douglas doesn’t always see the value in throwing caution to the wind. For him, everything is a teachable moment, and it’s caused some friction with his family over the years. I could certainly see how living with him, especially given that Connie is much more free-spirited, could wear one down.

So the family go off on their tour of the great museums of Europe and it’s a bit of a bust from the get go. Douglas has the whole thing planned down to the minute, but of course it’s impossible to plan for every contingency. Still, he tries.

1. Energy! Never be ‘too tired’ or ‘not in the mood.’

2. Avoid conflict with Albie. Accept light-hearted joshing and do not retaliate with malice or bitter recriminations. Good humour at all times.

3. It is not necessary to be seen to be right about everything, even when that is the case.

Poor Douglas. He really can’t help himself. But he’s not a jack ass. He’s actually quite a lovely guy and he really does try, but it doesn’t take long before the trip goes sideways. His willingness to do whatever it takes to fix things, including his marriage, (often leading to quite comical incidents) is one of the great joys of Us.

The other joy is watching this family – all of whom love each other deeply but imperfectly – try to figure things out. The potential dissolution of a family – all that history – isn’t easy, and watching Douglas bare his scientific soul to the idea of being without Connie and having damaged his relationship with Albie beyond repair is really quite magnificent. I read one review that suggested that Douglas was too reticent about sharing personal details, often times the scene fades to black before too much is revealed, but I think this is exactly the reason Connie felt she had to leave him.

Us is funny (although there were instances when I felt it was trying just a tad too hard to get a laugh), and well-written. I loved visiting these European cities. The characters felt like real people. The ending was – well, you decide.

One Day in December – Josie Silver

I expect to be in the minority here, but I really didn’t see the charm of Josie Silver’s B697342F-E7EB-45CA-8ED5-439900BCD1C2novel One Day in December. It’s a book that depends on the chemistry of the central characters, Laurie and Jack, and our willingness to believe that a fleeting eye-lock might actually change the trajectory of someone’s life.

Laurie lives with her bestie, Sarah. They live in London, working post-college jobs and bemoaning their love lives (or lack thereof) over weird little sandwiches made with chicken, blue cheese, mayo and cranberry.

One day on the bus, Laurie locks eyes with a stranger waiting at a bus stop.

We are staring straight at each other and I can’t look away. I feel my lips move as if I’m going to say something, God knows what, and all of a sudden and out of nowhere I need to get off this bus. I’m gripped with the overwhelming urge to go outside, to get to him. But I don’t.

Laurie spends the next year boo-hooing about the boy, looking for him everywhere she goes, determined that he’s the one. And then, there he is. It’s a Christmas miracle. Except maybe not so much because it turns out that the love of Laurie’s life is Sarah’s new boyfriend.

Silver toggles the narrative between Laurie and Jack, so that we get to see just how tortured and two-sided these star-crossed lovers are. Because  – of course –  Jack remembers Laurie from the bus and  – of course –  he hopes she doesn’t realize who he is because he is trying “to establish her place in [his] head as Sarah’s friend rather than the girl I saw once and have thought of often since.” Even though Sarah is smoking hot he worries that if he and Sarah break up she’ll “spirit Laurie away with her.”

Ah, the tangled web.

Jack and Laurie’s relationship morphs over the ten years of the novel. That’s a lot of time to be pining for someone else. Laurie runs away to Thailand for a time and there she meets Oscar, a London banker, “but not a wanker”, who is “funny, self-deprecating, and when he looks at [her] there’s a kindness in his eyes that warms [her].” Truthfully, he’s an altogether nicer bloke than Jack.

But the heart wants what it wants, I guess. At least that’s the premise of Silver’s confection. You’ll need to believe in Jack and Laurie to fall in love with the book. I didn’t care about either of them.

I Let You Go – Clare Mackintosh

There have been a lot of books in the suspense thriller vein of late and I love them, especialllet you goy in the summer when I just want to give my brain a break from school.  Publishers always want to draw comparisons to Gone Girl, which is the book that perhaps kick-started this newest craze, but I think it’s better to let a book stand on its own bookish merits.

Clare Mackintosh’s novel I Let You Go is definitely top of the thriller heap. I couldn’t put this book down and galloped through it in just a couple of sittings.

In the book’s opening pages, a mother is walking home in the pouring rain with her young son. Just at the road across the street from their home, he lets go of her hand and runs across the street. Out of nowhere, a car comes barreling down the street and hits the boy. From this point on, I Let You Go is a grab-you-by-the-throat suspense thriller that follows Jenna Gray as she goes to the Welsh coast to escape the tragic death and the police detectives, Ray and Kate, who are trying to find the driver behind the wheel.

Jenna’s grief is palpable. “Everything has changed,” she muses. “The instant the car slid across the wet tarmac, my whole life changed.” She stays until she can’t anymore and then, packing only what will fit into her holdall, including a box of treasures from her life, she runs away.

Unable to resist, I open the box and pick up the uppermost photo: a Polaroid taken by a soft-spoken midwife on the day he was born. He is a tiny scrap of pink, barely visible beneath the white hospital blanket.

As a mom, it’s hard to imagine how Jenna will ever survive this tragedy, but survive she must. She finally settles in a tiny tourist town called Penfach, somewhere outside of Swansea. There she rents an isolated, dilapidated cottage and begins the arduous process of overcoming her grief.

In the meantime, Ray and Kate sift through the non-existent evidence, hoping for a break in the case. Mackintosh spent twelve years as a police officer and so these sections are authentic, but don’t weigh the narrative down with unnecessary police jargon. In addition, Ray and Kate – especially Ray – are given interesting personal lives, which add another dimension to the story.

It doesn’t always work, but it does here – Mackintosh pushes the story along and months pass. Jenna starts to make a life for herself; Ray and Kate are taken off the hit and run case because they’ve done all they can do and then all hell breaks loose in a totally WTF fashion. You’ll know what I mean when you get there and from that moment on, it is a breathless race to the book’s conclusion.

LOVED IT!

 

 

 

In a Dark, Dark Wood – Ruth Ware

Ruth Ware and I have lived parallel lives. I, too, have worked as a waitress, EAL teacher and  bookseller. Okay, I may have never been an official book publicist, but I could argue that I sell books all the time by talking about them here and in my classroom and on the radio. I have not, however, written a much-lauded “instant New York Times bestseller.” Crap.

Leonora (also known as Lee and Nora and Leo) is a reclusive and slightly odd mystery th9H5NVHJNwriter who lives in a small flat in London. One day she receives an email invitation to a weekend bridal shower (a “hen” night) for her once best friend, Clare. The invitation is puzzling to Nora because she hasn’t seen Clare in a decade and it seems as though they may have ended things on relatively awkward terms.

The invitation to the party starts Nora’s trip down memory lane, but it’s not a journey she takes willingly.

Clare had been my friend. My best friend, for a long time. And yet I’d run, without looking back, without even leaving a number. What kind of friend did that make me?

There’s only one other name Nora recognizes on the invite list: Nina da Souza. Nora reaches out and the two women make an “I’ll go if you go” pact. This is how they end up in the middle of the woods at a house that seems “as if it had been thrown down carelessly by a child tired of playing with some very minimalist bricks.” For someone used to living in close quarters in the middle of a huge city, Nora finds the location of Clare’s hen night “painfully exposed.” There’s a reason the place is called ‘The Glass House.’

The party’s host is Clare’s best friend from university, Flo. The other attendees are Melanie, a new mother and Tom, the token gay friend. When Nina and Nora arrive, Clare is not yet there. The whole event is awkward and fraught with tension.

Ware intersperses the hen night shenanigans with the aftermath of the weekend. Nora wakes up and “everything hurts. The light in my eyes, the pain in my head. There’s a stench of blood in my nostrils, and my hands are sticky with it.” There are police officers outside her hospital room door and someone is dead.

I enjoyed reading In a Dark, Dark Wood, but I sure wish people would stop comparing every psychological thriller/mystery to Gone Girl. This book is nothing like Gone Girl. That’s not a criticism, by the way. Ware doesn’t waste time with verbosity; this book moves along lickity split. Nora is a perfectly serviceable character, although not particularly endearing. There are plenty of creepy moments – as you’d expect in the fishbowl of a location.  The book has “blockbuster movie starring Reese Witherspoon (an early fan of the novel)” written all over it.

 

 

Lilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

Lilac Girls, the debut novel by Martha Hall Kelly,  is the first novel for my book club’s 2016-17 reading year. When it was chosen I can’t say that I was all that interested in reading it. We have all summer to read the book chosen for our first meeting of the new reading year, but I tend to like to read fast, snappy thrillers/mysteries in the summer – with the occasional YA or lit fic thrown into the mix. Also – not a tremendous fan of historical fiction. But I always read the book club selection because our get-togethers are a lot more fun when I’ve read the book. All this to say that I started this novel with a relatively negative attitude.

Lilac book jacketKelly’s novel tells the story of three very different women: New York socialite Caroline Ferriday, Polish teenager, Kasia Kuzmerick and German doctor Herta Oberheuser. It is 1939 and the one thing these women have in common is Adolf Hitler.

Caroline is 37 when the story opens. She’s a retired actress who volunteers at the French consulate. Kasia is just 16 when Germany invades Poland and changes her life forever. She is working as a courier for the underground resistance movement when she and her older sister, Zuzanna, and their mother are arrested and shipped off to Ravensbruck, a Nazi concentration camp for women. It is there that she encounters Herta, a young doctor who has taken a post at the camp because it is difficult for women in the medical field to find work.

The novel is told in three separate first person narratives and once the book gets going it’s almost impossible not to be carried along by the horrors of Ravensbruck and Kasia’s desperate attempts to survive. There’s also a little angsty love story between Caroline and famous French actor Paul Rodierre.  I read the first 200 pages in one sitting.

Caroline and Herta are real people, as Kelly explains in her notes. Kazia and her sister are

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Caroline Ferriday

“loosely based on Nina Iwanska and her physician sister, Krystyna, both operated on in the camps.”

It is almost impossible not to invest in these characters, and the sections concerning Kasia in Ravensbruck are particularly harrowing. There, she and her sister are among hundreds of women used as real-life guinea pigs (or “rabbits” as they are called) for the Ravensbruck doctors to experiment on. Herta’s participation in these horrific experiments,  crimes that are against every aspect of the Hippocratic oath, seal her fate as a villain.

The book is long and the ending seemed a little rushed to me and I could never figure out the title or the dumb book cover- which makes it seem like three girls are the best of friends. I also wasn’t fussy about Kasia and Herta’s showdown, but ultimately Lilac Girls was a good read.

How Not To Fall – Emily Foster

Remember when Fifty Shades of Grey was all the rage? Sure you do.  125 million people bought that piece of crap. (Okay, yes, I read it. But I did not read its sequels. I have standards, people.) Suddenly everyone was reading erotica – loud and proud or behind the more secretive screens of their e-readers.

I love a good smutty book, but the problem with smut is that no two readers will be alike when it comes to what turns them on. Perhaps E.L. James just got lucky. In fandom, which are the loins from which her books sprang, BDSM is as common as sex in the missionary position with the lights off. My objection to the Fifty Shades book(s) had nothing to do with the subject matter (I spent ten years in fandom; I’ve read it all) and everything to do with the quality of the prose and one-dimensional characterization. (It couldn’t be any other way, Edward/Christian and Bella/Anastasia are about as one-note as they come.)

27208942Enter How Not To Fall. Of course I’d seen this book at the book store, but I don’t think I even picked it up to read the blurb. Then I read a review – although I can’t remember where. The reviewer avoided comparisons with Fifty Shades, but did sing the book’s praises. Smart and hot – which is probably a pretty good combination. So, the next time I was at Indigo, I bought the book and now I’ve read it.

Annabelle (Annie) Coffey is a 22-year-old student at a university in Indiana. Dr. Charles Douglas is a 26-year-old postdoctoral fellow in Annie’s psychophysiology lab. He’s British and brilliant and “a dreamboat” and, technically, her teacher.  Annie’s been lusting after him for two years, but as her undergraduate degree draws to a close, she figures it’s about time to take matters into her own hands – so to speak. She tells her roommate and best friend, Margaret, that she is “going to ask Charles to have sex.” She asks, he declines, but Annie is convinced that she hasn’t misread the signals. She tells him

“The thing is, I think you and I have A Thing, and I know if I don’t at least put it on the table, I’ll always wonder ‘what if’ and so I’m just…putting it on the table, you know, and leaving it there. Like bread. For sharing.”

Turns out, Charles does reciprocate Annie’s feelings; he’s just too professional to act on them. So they make a deal – once all her research is in, once there is no possibility of a sex act compromising ethics – they’ll do it. Cue about 200 pages of smut.

Here’s what I really liked about How Not To Fall.

  1. Annie/Charles  Annie is self-deprecating and her narration is charming and often funny.

Am I a beauty queen? I am not. My nose has a great deal of character. My hair has some interesting ideas about its place in the world. My body is built more along the lines of a wristwatch than an hourglass – flat yet bendy. It works for me – I am my body’s biggest fangirl – but I recognize where it falls short of the culturally constructed ideal.

Charles is smart – like brilliant smart – but also kind and, as we learn gradually, a little bit damaged, too. Also, on the hotness scale – according to Annie “it is a mercy to the world that the man doesn’t try to look good.”

2.  The sex is well-written. That’s a big one for me. If I am going to read erotica, I want to read well-written erotica. And since How Not To Fall contains a lot of sex it might have easily gotten boring. You know – geesh, are they going to do it again? I didn’t skim. Actually, overall, the book is well-written.

3. Personally, I kinda loved the way the book ended – although it did break my heart a little. Apparently, there’s a sequel coming out next year. (I will probably read it: see #1.)

I did have a couple little things that irked me. Charles often sounded like a middle-aged man. He called Annie “Young Coffey” a lot. Like he was twenty years her senior rather than four. He also refers to her as “termagant,” a word I was not familiar with, so I had to look it up. It means a “harsh or overbearing woman.”  I couldn’t really make the connection. Also, I don’t have a foot fetish – clearly Charles does. Too much feet/toes for me. These are niggles, because overall, I enjoyed the book for all the reasons one might enjoy a book of this type.

So – if you are looking for a fun, smutty book to pack in your beach bag – give this one a go.

The Girls in the Garden – Lisa Jewell

Although I have hundreds of books waiting for me on my tbr shelf, I can’t seem to stop buying new books whenever I am at the bookstore, which is – let’s face it – often. There’s been all these suspense thrillers out there like I’m Thinking of Ending Things and The Widow and Twisted River  and The Crooked House which I seem to be drawn to like the proverbial moth to the flame. Maybe it’s because it’s summer and I just like to read something that’s fun, I dunno. But I have no trouble ignoring the huge catalogue of back-listed books I have waiting to be read and, instead, buy the shiny new books.

the-girls-in-the-garden-9781476792217_hrThe Girls in the Garden is one of those books. Although it turned out to be not the book I thought it would be, it was a great read nonetheless.

Clare has moved to a small enclave somewhere in urban London. Virginia Park is “formed in the space between a long row of small, flat-fronted Georgian cottages on Virginia Terrace and a majestic half-moon of  stucco-fronted mansions on Virginia Crescent, with a large Victorian apartment block at either end.” She and her children, eleven-year-old Pip and twelve-year-old Grace are recovering from a horrible incident involving Clare’s husband, Chris. (And again, what is it with book blurbs getting it wrong? The back cover says Pip is older, but she’s not.)

From the outside, Virginia Park seems like a miracle of a place. In the boundary formed by the buildings is a beautiful park which Pip describes in a letter to her father as being “like Narnia.”

…there are all these pathways and little tucked-away places. A secret garden which is hidden inside an old wall covered with ivy, like the one in the book. A rose garden which has bowers all the way around and benches in the middle. And then there’s a playground, too.

It’s a place of magic for the girls and a place for Clare to catch her breath. Except, of course, the magic is short-lived.

Adele also lives in Virginia Park with her husband, the handsome and slightly oily Leo, and their daughters Catkin, Fern and Willow. The girls are home-schooled and the family leads a slightly bohemian life. Soon, Clare and her girls are brought into the welcoming embrace of Adele’s family. (Okay, maybe the girls aren’t 100% welcoming; you know how kids are.)

Tyler, another pre-teen who lives in one of the flats and her best friend, Dylan, the beautiful thirteen-year-old boy who also lives at the park, round out the gang that Grace and Pip find themselves hanging around with.

The Girls in the Garden reads like a thriller. The novel begins with the discovery of Grace’s unconscious and bloody body being discovered by her sister in the rose garden and then backtracks to unspool the story, mainly from the point of view of Clare, Adele and Pip.

Jewell cleverly manipulates the reader into imagining a variety of very plausible scenarios before the story takes an unexpected (but not unbelievable) turn, ultimately making The Girls in the Garden less of a thriller and more of a domestic drama. But really, is there anything more thrilling than that? Isn’t it absolutely true that we never really know people, even those closest to us?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

The Crooked House – Christobel Kent

I can certainly see why Christobel Kent’s novel The Crooked House has drawn comparisons with the British mystery Broadchurch. Like that story, Kent’s novel takes place in an isolated village (in this case, Saltleigh) and concerns a horrific crime which has rippled out into the community.

Alison used to be Esme and when she was fourteen her entire family was slaughtered. 748d3761900605840ce32be83a67d549Since that horrible night, Alison has flown under the radar. She lived first with her aunt in the south and then, after school, she moved to London where she worked in publishing, and where she met Paul. Paul is older, in his forties, and a professor. They had “Long, lazy conversations about books and movies and work, eating dinner at his big wooden table, or leaning against each other on his old sofa.” Alison likes him, so when he asks her to accompany him to Saltleigh to attend the wedding of a former girlfriend, she can’t seem to refuse even though she hasn’t been back since the crime.

Saltleigh is the same as Alison remembers.The smells, the colours, the landscape, and the memories of living there with her older brother, younger twin sisters, and her parents are palpable. On the first morning, while Paul sleeps on, Alison answers the memories and goes to her childhood home.

The house was boarded and derelict, weathered plywood splintered and graffitied at each window and the purple spikes of some plant sprouting above the lintel over the front door. The little enclosed yard behind where they had hidden and whispered and left secret messages. Thirteen years.

Despite the fact that she has spent the last thirteen years trying to forget, the memories have been triggered by coming back and she can do nothing but follow where they lead. What really happened that night?

The Crooked House was clearly a big hit in the UK. My version was covered with praise – a combination of praise from other authors, which is always suspect to me, and from the press.  Good Housekeeping said it “Demands to be read in one sitting.” I think that might actually be wise advice because although I did like this book (it’s clever, smart and well-written), I found it really disjointed. It shifts time periods all over the damn place and there are loads of characters and subplots (all relevant, mind you) to keep track of. If I managed to read without interruption, I easily settled into the book’s rhythms. but it definitely wasn’t a book you could pick up on the fly.

I think this book would make an excellent mini-series or movie. Get on that, would you, BBC!