The Cult on Fog Island – Mariette Lindstein

Cults are fascinating, aren’t they? I was a kid in the 1970s and there wasn’t anyone scarier than Charles Manson. I watched the whole documentary about Keith Raniere and NXIVM. I mean those were some intelligent people and they just got sucked into this crazy, perverted world. Jonestown. Children of God. Heaven’s Gate.

Mariette Lindstein was a member of Scientology for 25 years. She left in 2004. Her debut novel, The Cult on Fog Island, is the story of a 24-year-old Sofia who attends a conference on a Fog Island.

Life has been difficult for Sofia. She’s sort of at a crossroad and she isn’t really sure what to do with herself. She’s earned a degree in English literature, her toxic relationship with Ellis is over and now she doesn’t know what to do with herself. When she gets an unsolicited email inviting her to attend “A lecture on ViaTerra by Franz Oswald. For those who wish to walk the way of the earth”, she’s intrigued.

She and her best friend, Wilma, attend the lecture. Sofia’s spidey senses go off almost immediately but Oswald’s charm, charisma and imposing physical presence are soon impossible to ignore and Sofia “began to catch on to what he believed in. A sort of back-to-Mother-Earth philosophy where anything artificial was the root of all evil.” When Oswald offers Sofia the opportunity to build a library – no expense spared – for ViaTerra, it seems like a gift from the heavens.

Of course, things aren’t quite right on Fog Island; the prologue is about an attempted escape. But for a book about a cult, it’s pretty boring. I mean, it’s over 500 pages long and nothing really happens until about page 450. Until then, the book meanders through the day-to-day business of ViaTerra which includes Sofia’s “unwinding” (three days of eating, sleeping and walking around the mansion’s grounds), studying the group’s theses, four vague tenets (which at first make Sofia feel “disappointed and duped”) and basically being groomed by Oswald. When Sofia finally admits that something sinister is going on (even though the ferry captain told her on day one that the place was haunted), it still takes a hundred pages for her to make a move.

My main issue with The Cult on Fog Island is pacing. So much is crammed into the last 100 pages it felt sort of uneven. If the whole thing had been about 250 pages shorter, I might have been more inclined to care about Sofia. Lots of conveniences and moments where tension could have been ramped up and just weren’t. And again with the clunky dialogue, which I find is often a problem with translations.

Then, when I finished, I discovered that this is book one of a trilogy. Yeah, not going to be reading the rest.

The Midnight Library – Matt Haig

Nora Seed, the protagonist of Matt Haig’s novel The Midnight Library, wants to die. She’s just been fired from her job at a music store, she is estranged from her brother, the only remaining member of her immediate family, and her cat has died. What has she got to live for, really? So she takes too many antidepressants and ends up – well, in the Midnight Library.

The librarian (who just happens to have been the librarian at Hazeldene School back when Nora was a kid) tells her

“Between life and death there is a library […] And within that library, the shelves go on forever. Every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived. To things how things would be different if you had made other choices…Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

There’s a bunch of mumbo-jumbo and quantum physics and philosophy and stuff about “sliders” (others, like Nora, who are dipping in and out of “lives less traveled”), but ultimately, Nora gets to choose new lives until she settles on a life she actually wants to live.

First, though, she has to tackle her Book of Regrets. That’s a brick of a book where “Every regret [she has] ever had, since the day [she was] born, is recorded.” All those regrets are bound to wear a person down, right?

I know people will lap The Midnight Library up like it’s the most perfect bowl of ice cream on the planet. And why not? It’s easy enough to read; the plot is straightforward despite the fact that Nora can cast off undesirable lives like unwanted coats. She eventually realizes what I could have told her in about thirty seconds: no life is perfect. The perfect life is the life – the one and only life – you’ve got. If only Nora had realized that, y’know, before she swallowed the pills.

There was no emotional punch for me. Nora was okay. The rest of the characters were okay. The writing was okay. It was all…okay. Well, perhaps a bit twee, really. I’d suggest that if you want to read something that really encourages you to consider the value of every day of your life, you read (or even better, watch) Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Our Town.

The Reunion – Guillaume Musso

There must be something about fall that has me reading these thrillers about reunions. In this latest outing, The Reunion (translated from the French), Guillaume Russo spins the story of successful novelist Thomas Degalais who returns to  Côte d’Azur to attend his 25th high school reunion. He’s nervous about coming home; there are secrets buried at Lycee International Saint-Exupery. Literally.

First, there’s the unsolved disappearance of Thomas’s popular classmate, Vinca Rockwell, thought to have run off with her philosophy teacher, Alexis Clement.

They were last seen the following day in a hotel in the seventh arrondissement near the Basilica Saint-Clotilde. After that, all trace of their presence in Paris was lost. They never reappeared, never contacted friends or family. They quite literally vanished.

That, at least, was the official version.

Clearly, there is more to the story than this. Thomas was in love with Vinca, and when he arrives back in his home town, long-held secrets start to spill out. Reunited with his besties, Maxime and Fanny, Thomas starts to pull at the threads of his memories. And that, right there, is a can of worms.

Then, there’s the body buried in the gym walls (not a spoiler; it’s revealed in the blurb), a body which may at long last be discovered as the gym is due to be demolished. Who is it? Who committed the crime? Worry not, all is revealed quite quickly, but this reveal is only the tip of the iceberg.

The Reunion flashes back and forth between now, at the reunion, and then, back before Vinca went missing. There is A LOT going on in this novel. Too much, I’d say; I never felt really invested in any one thing because I didn’t feel like I knew any of the characters (or liked any of them) well enough to care. Yeah, sure, it all ties together but it didn’t feel satisfying.

Maybe it’s because it’s a translation – which regular readers (do I actually have any of those?) will know, I often find stilted and stodgy. Loads of critics thought it was the BEST BOOK EVER. I found it kind of slow-moving, until it wasn’t, but so much was packed into the last 40 pages, I just found it all sort of…ridiculous. Apparently, a limited TV series is in production. That might be okay. For me, though, the book was just sort of meh.

In My Dreams I Hold a Knife – Ashley Winstead

There seems to be a lot of novels out there about college reunions these days. Must be a millennial thing. I was excited to read Ashley Winstead’s debut In My Dreams I Hold a Knife because I love the title and that cover. Sadly, I am ambivalent about the book as a whole. I am not going to say I didn’t like it because I was wholly invested for the first third and still hanging in there for the second, but by the last third I was just….nope.

Jessica Miller is headed back to Duquette University to attend her ten-year class reunion. She is keen to show her former gang, collectively known as the East House Seven, that she has made it.

I wanted them to see perfection. I ached for it in the deep, dark core of me: to be so good I left other people in the dust.

The East Coast Seven are “the people responsible for the best days of [Jessica’s] life, and the worst.” She’d met them all early in freshman year, and they’d bonded instantly. There’s Jack (“an eighteen-year-old Mr. Rogers”), Heather ( “the confident blonde”), Coop (hot in a “one-time, get-the-bad-boy-out-of-your-system kind of way”), Mint (“the most beautiful boy” Jess had ever seen) , Frankie (“tall and broad…in a way that screamed athlete”), and Caro (“small and olive-skinned and pretty”).

Fast-forward a decade though and she’s really only speaking to Caro, her bestie, and Jack. Going back to Duquette means seeing Mint (her boyfriend through college) and Coop (the boy she actually loved) again. One is married to another girl, and one is engaged to Caro. As if this drama isn’t enough, this reunion has the potential to stir up the unsolved murder of Heather, who was savagely stabbed to death senior year.

So – there are lots of things I did like about this book. First of all, I am all about angst and the relationship between Jessica and Coop has that in spades. Although I am long past my university days, I do enjoy books set on college campuses. Heather’s unsolved murder has lots of potential for red herrings and such and, of course, who doesn’t love a story where people are reunited after a trauma? I also thought the writing was quite good – no quibbles with that.

The novel flips back and forth between then and now. We get glimpses of the East House Seven at various points during the four years of college, but mostly through Jess’s eyes. Towards the end, we do see certain events from the 3rd person perspective of some of the other characters. These sections felt mostly expository because they were things Jess couldn’t possibly have known, but the reader had to be told in order for the narrative to make sense.

I was wholly invested at the start. It started to unravel, though, when Eric Shelby, Heather’s younger brother, confronts the group at the reunion. He’s determined to reveal who is responsible for his sister’s death – something the police hadn’t been able to do. As each character is accused and their closely-held secrets start spilling out, the book started to lose momentum for me. I think part of the issue might have been that Winstead just tried to cram way too much into the book, and none of these “secrets” had any room to breathe. Part of the problem might have been the first person narration. It’s limiting because we only know that character’s perspective and of course, in a book like this, you have to wonder how reliable the narrator actually is. The denouement just felt sort of ridiculous – lots of shouting, and running.

All of that said, though, I would 100% read something else by Winstead. Despite the fact that In My Dreams I Hold a Knife didn’t quite work for me, it was brimming with potential and I suspect that her next offering will be awesome.

The Night She Disappeared – Lisa Jewell

It takes a skilled writer to successfully plot a novel with a million moving parts and Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden, I Found You, Watching You, The Family Upstairs, Invisible Girl ) always makes it seem so easy. Her latest novel, The Night She Disappeared flips back and forth in time, and between characters and tells the riveting tale of one mother’s desperate search for her nineteen-year-old daughter, Tallulah.

Tallulah and her boyfriend, Zach, and their baby son, Noah, live with Tallulah’s mom, Kim. Zach has only recently become a part of the family again; when Tallulah told him she was pregnant he didn’t believe her, but now they are trying to make a go of it. When the novel opens, Zach and Tallulah are heading out for a much-deserved break to celebrate the end of term for Tallulah’s college course and, unbeknownst to her, a surprise proposal. But they don’t come home.

A year later, Sophie Beck and her partner, Shaun Gray, move into a little cottage on the grounds of Maypole House, the private school where Gray is to be the new headmaster. They’ve given up their London lives, but Sophie hopes that this change will suit them. She’s a writer of cozy crime novels and the last thing she is expecting is to discover a mystery in her own back garden, but that’s what happens. Someone has left a sign “Dig Here” and when she does, Sophie finds an engagement ring and, putting her detective skills to work, she discovers that the ring was purchased by Zach.

Then there’s Scarlett Jacques, the enigmatic girl from Tallulah’s school. She was the last person to see Tallulah and Zach alive. They’d been with her and some other friends at Dark Place, her family’s home. The house is

a hodgepodge of disparate architectural styles, blended almost seamlessly together across three wings, set around a central courtyard. The sun sparkles off the diamonds of leaded windows on the left wing and larger Victorian casement of sash windows on the right. It should be a mess, but it’s not; it is exquisitely beautiful.

It seems as though Tallulah and Zach have vanished into thin air, a notion Kim simply cannot accept. They would never leave their son, but it isn’t until Sophie discovers the ring that some new information shakes loose. All the while, Jewell reveals the secrets characters have been keeping, revealing complex interior lives.

Like all Jewell’s novels, The Night She Disappeared is twisty-turny, well-written and loads of fun to read. I always keep a stock of unread novels by her on my shelf because nothing beats a book slump like Lisa Jewell.

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!