The Husband’s Secret – Liane Moriarty

It’s no secret to the ladies in my book club: I didn’t like Liane Moriarty’s novel The Husband’s Secret. At all. But here’s the thing, the critics loved it. Geesh, even Anne Lamott called it “smart, wise, funny.” husband

The husband in question in The Husband’s Secret is Cecilia’s husband,  John-Paul Fitzpatrick, he of the “deep, warm and comforting” voice; hopeless at the minutiae of daily life, but “he took care of his wife and daughters, in that old-fashioned, responsible I-am-the-man-and-this-is-my-job way.”  One day, while searching in the attic for a little piece of the Berlin Wall (cue metaphor alert) to give to her  daughter, Esther, who has recently shown an interest, Cecilia discovers  (by accident…or is it fate?)  an envelope upon which is written: For my wife Cecilia Fitzpatrick,  To be opened only in the event of my death.

In another part of town is Rachel, a woman whose life has been forever coloured by the death of her teenage daughter, Janie, some twenty-eight years ago. She has a son, Rob, and daughter-in-law, Lauren and a two-year-old grandson, Jacob. Rob and Lauren have just told Rachel that they are moving to New York to take advantage of a terrific job opportunity for Lauren. Jacob is the light of Rachel’s life and the news is devastating to her – never mind that she has discounted Rob and Lauren forever, because – you know – she’s grieving. Still. Always.

The third woman to figure in Moriarty’s over-stuffed plot is Tess, who has recently come home with her young son, Liam,  because her husband, Will, and cousin, Felicity, (who are also her business partners) have just revealed that they have fallen in love. Ouch.

Really, there’s enough going on in The Husband’s Secret to fuel three novels, but Moriarty chooses, instead, to tangle the fates of all these three women together and also try to comment on infidelity, love, marriage, family, parenting, friendship, and how to make a million bucks selling Tupperware.

A novel like this, let’s call it domestic drama, depends on one thing and one thing alone and that’s believability. I didn’t believe any of these characters, nor care about them one iota. The book seemed interminable to me, over 400 pages bookended with a prologue and epilogue that asks you to consider the myriad of ways your life might have gone had you only chosen a different path. But as Robert Frost’s misunderstood poem “The Road Not Taken” warns us “the passing there/ Had worn them really about the same.” No matter which path you choose in life,  a belief in fate is also a belief that everything turns out as it should.

The Husband’s Secret is an “everything but the kitchen sink” novel that tries hard to be all things to all readers: mystery (though not so much for careful readers), and family drama, with a little bit of sex thrown in for good measure. When one of my friends joked “just wait until you get to the aliens,” I actually considered she might be telling the truth.

A world of no.

 

Coming Up For Air – Patti Callahan Henry

Patti Callahan Henry’s heroines all have the same problem: they are women of a certain age at a crossroads in their lives. For Amy, the protagonist in my first Henry novel Losing the Moon, it’s the unexpected reunion with her college boyfriend, Nick. In Where the River Runs  it’s the emotions rekindled by revisiting a tragedy from Meridy’s youth.

Then there’s Ellie Calvin, the main character in Coming Up For Air. Ellie realizes at her coming-up-for-airmother’s funeral that she no longer loves her husband, Rusty. Truth be told, he’s a bit of a douche, a passive aggressive clout from the right side of the tracks. What Ellie really longs for is Hutch, her “bad boy” college boyfriend. Of course, she doesn’t know that just yet. It’s not until he’s suddenly standing in front of her and

…I saw his face. Twenty years later, minutes and hours and days rearranged to allow me to see him again as if time hadn’t passed at all. Mostly I saw his eyes: almond shaped and kind, brown with green underneath, as if the eyes had meant to be the color of forest ferns and then at the last minute changed their mind.

As a reader, you pretty much know what’s going to happen about then – all that remains to be seen is just how meandering the journey. In this instance, Hutch is an historian and he’s been working on an exhibit at the Atlanta History Centre, an exhibit honouring some of the South’s great dames – in which Ellie’s mother, Lillian,  figures prominently. Ellie has had a prickly relationship with her mother. Much of the acrimony,  ironically, involved Hutch.

Then Ellie finds a journal her mother kept. The entries, one a year, reveal that Ellie’s mother wasn’t always the proper and stiff woman Ellie had grown up. In fact, she’d had a deep and passionate love affair before she’d married Ellie’s father to a man identified only as Him.(Not sure why it’s capitalized.)  Furthermore, she’d been involved in the Civil Rights Movement.

Obviously, Ellie and Hutch need to find out what all this means and so they head down to the Alabama coast where Lillian’s best friend, Ms. Birdie, lives. Ms. Birdie also happens to be Ellie’s best friend’s mom…so, see how that all works out? Of course, Ms. Birdie is reluctant to tell Ellie anything much. There’s still half a book to get through, after all.

I read the whole thing, of course I did. It’s not because it’s full of hot sex, either. Hutch and Ellie barely exchange a platonic kiss. It’s not because I particularly cared about any of the characters. Even the revelation of who the mysterious Him was is a disappointment. I was hoping Lillian had been really brave.

I guess I didn’t give up on Coming Up For Air because the romantic in me wants to see the potential for love at a certain age. I’m older than Ellie and I don’t have a marriage to walk away from anymore, but I do – sometimes – long for that chemical connection. Of course, I don’t have pots of money allowing me to step away from my life and go live in a magical cottage on the water. I also don’t have a “one-that-got-away” college boyfriend.

If our lives are a story and we are characters in that story, perhaps Ellie’s Uncle Cotton’s question is valid: “What’s the next best thing to happen here?”

Unfortunately, I think Henry took the path most traveled, but I guess if you like happily-ever-after that’s probably okay.

The Widow – Fiona Barton

Although I often enter book giveaways on Good Reads, I never win. That is until a couple weeks ago when an ARC of Fiona Barton’s novel The Widow showed up at my door compliments of Penguin Random House Canada. The book was cleverly packaged in an ‘evidence bag’ along with a package of Skittles. Awesome to get a book in the mail, but Skittles, too. Jackpot!

widowI seem to be on a roll these days, reading books I can’t seem to put down. I motored through The Widow in a couple of days.  Although the subject matter (porn) may not appeal to everyone, rest assured that there’s no graphic content in Barton’s book. Your imagination will fill in the gaps, trust me.

Jean and Glen Taylor are an average thirty-something couple living in England. Jean is a hairdresser and Glen, a banker. They are unremarkable  until they come under the scrutiny of the police because of the disappearance of a little girl, Bella, who has gone missing from her front garden.

Told from various viewpoints, The Widow mostly revolves around Jean as she decides whether or not to share her story with the press. Glen has been killed, “knocked down by a bus just outside Sainsbury’s” and now Jean no longer has to keep his secrets or put up with his “nonsense.”

When we are not with Jean, we’re with Kate, the reporter who is trying to convince Jean to tell her side of things or Bob Sparkes, the police detective trying to figure out what happened to little Bella. It’s Bella’s disappearance that drives Kate and Bob, although each of them views the crime from a different perspective. As Sparkes follows a trail of clues, many of which don’t pan out, Jean reveals her own misgivings about Glen and what he does on the computer in the spare room. Slowly she unravels the story of her marriage and while she may seem like a victim, there is something unreliable about her narrative. She admits “I had to keep his secrets as well as mine.”

The Widow delves into the sordid world of online pornography, skeezy Internet clubs where men hide in booths to pay-per-view and magazines sold out of the back of trunks at gas stations on the motorway. When Jean finally learns about her husband’s preferences

he told me it wasn’t his fault. He’d been drawn into online porn by the Internet – they shouldn’t allow these things on the Web. It was a trap for innocent men. He’d become addicted to it – “It’s a medical condition, Jeanie, an addiction.” But he’d never looked at children. Those images just ended up on his computer – like a virus.

Whether or not Jean suspected Glen of anything is one of the key elements that will keep you turning the pages. Barton’s crisp, no-nonsense prose is another. The Widow will keep you turning the pages way past your bedtime.

 

The Winter People – Jennifer McMahon

A few years back I read Jennifer McMahon’s debut novel Promise Not To Tell, and I enjoyed it a great deal. A couple years after that I read McMahon’s novel Dismantled, a book I did not like one bit. Now I’ve just finished reading The Winter People, and I have to say it falls sort of in between.winterThe Winter People is a story which bounces between present day and 1908. In the past, Sara Harrison Shea lives on the farm where she grew up with her husband, Martin, and her little girl, Gertie. West Hall, Vermont is well-known for its mysteries and ghost stories, many of which center around Sara and her family farm, a house filled with secret places and, well, secrets.

In her diary, Sara writes “The first time I saw a sleeper, I was nine years old.”

I had heard about sleepers; there was even a game we played in the schoolyard in which one child  would be laid out dead in a circle of violets and forget-me-nots. Then someone would lean down and whisper magic words in the dead girl’s ear, and she would rise and chase all the other children. The first one she caught would be the next to die.

Turns out, though, there is dark magic and Sara’s Auntie, an Indian woman who cared for Sara’s dying mother before she started sleeping with Sara’s widowed father promises to “write it all down, everything I know about sleepers.” In case it’s not obvious, sleepers are people brought back from the dead, but they only exist for seven days, you, know, unless they shed blood during that time – then they live forever.

In the present, nineteen-year-old Ruthie lives in Sara’s farmhouse with her mother, Alice, and her little sister, Fawn. One morning Ruthie gets up to discover her mother is missing. Cold tea on the table, truck in the barn – vanished into thin air.

Then there’s Katherine. She’s still grieving the loss of her son, Austin, when her husband, Gary, is killed in a car accident. Thing is, he told her he was going to be one place and he was actually in West Hall. Last seen: Lou Lou’s Cafe with Alice.

These disparate threads do come together by novel’s end, but I lost interest about half-way through. The Winter People is clearly meant to be a ghost story, but once crazy Candace shows up, intent on getting the missing pages of Sara’s diary so she can sell the secret of raising the dead so she can fight for custody of her son -yeah, right about then I was…c’mon. Oh, plus there’s a gun. Two guns actually. And other crazy shenanigans. And then, a lot of exposition to tie up those pesky loose ends.

When McMahon stuck to the ghost stuff…there were some creepy moments, but The Winter People is nowhere near as good as Promise Not To Tell.

Think of a Numb3r – John Verdon

numberJohn Verdon’s debut novel Think of a Numb3r introduces readers to retired NYC detective Dave Gurney, the man responsible for catching several well-known serial killers. Now he lives a quiet life in Walnut Crossing with his second wife, Madeleine. He spends his time “enhancing, clarifying, intensifying criminal mug shots” which he sells through gallery owner Sonya Reynolds, a woman he spends just a tad too much time thinking about.

Out of the blue he receives a message from an old college classmate, Mark Mellery. Mellery is ” the director of some sort of institute in Peony and he did a series of lectures that ran on PBS.” Mark needs Dave’s help. He’s received a cryptic note:

Do you believe in fate? I do, because I never thought I’d see you again – and then one day, there you were. It all came back: how you sound, how you move – most of all, how you think. If someone told you to think of a number, I know what number you’d think of. You don’t believe me? I’ll prove it to you. Think of any number up to a thousand – the first number that comes to your mind. Picture it. Now see how well I know your secrets. Open the little envelope.

The note is creepy; the fact that the envelope contains the very number that Mark thought of, creepier still. Mark claims that the number he thought of –  658 – “has no particular significance to me.” The note also asks Mark to send $289.87 to  a post office box in Connecticut.  Mark has sent the money, but the check has not been cashed. It’s a perplexing situation and Mark is looking for some guidance.

Think of a Numb3r is a well-written mystery but I found it just a tad slow. Even after the bodies start to pile up, I felt like the same evidence was being recounted  too often. A lot of names to remember- DAs and other detectives and such. As for Dave, he just seems pissed off all the time. Okay – yes, there’s been  tragedy in his life which may explain some of it away, but then the reconciliation with Madeleine at the end seems a little trite. We get to hear just a little too often how famous Dave is and , yeah, we get it – he’s caught some monsters.

As far as the mystery – it’s good enough. There are certainly some compelling elements – footsteps in the snow which vanish into thin air, clues left for the police which are clearly meant to demonstrate how smart the villain is. I just wish it had all unfolded a teensy bit quicker.

Pulse Pounding Thrillers

There’s nothing I like better than a thriller; it’s my go-to genre when I want to jumpstart my reading. I love a good mystery, a page-turning, heart-pounding, protagonist in peril book that I can’t put down. I know I am not the only one who likes suspense, just look at how popular books like The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl are. I love it when you find a book with the perfect combination of creepy thrills and stellar writing, so I thought I would share five books for any readers out there who are looking for something to curl up with while the weather is crappy.

 Intensity – Dean Koontz

So, I rintensityead this book about twenty years ago. Koontz is a very prolific writer of supernatural fiction. I’ve read a few of his book, but this one was totally propulsive. It’s about a Chyna Shephard, a young woman who is visiting a with her best friend’s family when really bad luck arrives in the form of serial killer Edgler Forman Vess. What follows is a thrill ride that will have you turning the pages super fast.
Instruments of Night – Thomas H. Cook instruments

You might have to order books by American mystery writer Thomas H. Cook online because it’s rare to find him on the shelves of our local book stores-which I don’t get because he’s fabulous. The first book I ever read by Cook was called Breakheart Hill and it had a killer opening line: “This is the darkest story I ever heard and all my life I have labored not to tell it.” I had to buy it…and I’ve probably read seven or eight books by him now. One of my favourites by Cook is Instruments of Night.

It’s the story of writer Paul Graves, a man who has spent his career writing about the horrible dance between serial killer and sadist Kessler (and his accomplice, Sykes) and the man who has spent his career chasing him, Detective Slovak. Instruments of Night operates on more than one level, though. Graves has almost completed the 14th installment of his series when he is invited to upstate New York to meet with Allison Davies, mistress of an estate known as Riverwood. Fifty years ago, Allison’s best friend, Faye, was murdered on the grounds and now Allison wants Paul to “imagine what happened to Faye. And why.” Couldn’t put it down

If you like literary mysteries- you’d be hard pressed to find anyone better than Cook.
dark-places-book-coverDark Places – Gillian Flynn

So everyone knows Flynn for her novel Gone Girl, but I actually read her book Dark Places first. It’s her second novel, her first is Sharp Objects…also really good, but Dark Places is – I think – her best. It’s about Libby Day, this rather unlikeable woman who has – no question – survived a lot of hardship. Her mother and two older sisters were murdered when she was a kid and her testimony helped convict her older brother Ben – who was fifteen at the time – for the crime. Flynn weaves the past and present together as Libby finds herself confronted with the truth of the crime that changed her life. Fantastic book.
End of Story – Peter Abrahams endofstory

You could polish off End of Story in an afternoon – because once you get going you won’t be able to put it down. It’s the story of tells the compelling tale of Ivy Siedel, an aspiring writer, who takes a job teaching writing to a small group of inmates at Dannemora Prison, in Upstate New York. When one of her students, Vance Harrow, turns out to be a talented writer, Ivy decides to take a closer look at his history and discovers something about him that both shocks and excites her…and changes her life forever.
descent_thumbAnd my last pick is a book I just purchased this weekend and I haven’t read it, but I am expecting great things because it’s been given copious praise by everyone and their dog. It’s called Descent and it’s by a new-to-me author, Tim Johnston. A family is on vacation. The college age daughter and her brother go out for a run and only the brother returns.

I’ll let you know how that one turns out.

 

Have you read any good thrillers? I’d love to hear about them.

Reconstructing Amelia – Kimberly McCreight

reconstructingI’m sure all the mothers out there can appreciate how difficult it is to really know what is happening in our children’s lives these days. I mean, on the surface, it seems like it would be easier, right? We have phones that connect us immediately – but the flip side of that is that, because of this technology,  our kids can live lives very separate from us, too. When I was a teenager there was one phone and it was in the kitchen. If you got a call, you took it in full view of your parents and siblings; there were ears everywhere. Hardly anyone calls my house phone anymore – and certainly not the friends of my kids.

It is this very private world that is central to Kimberly McCreight’s suspenseful and timely novel Reconstructing Amelia.

Kate Baron is a high-powered lawyer and single mom. She and her  fifteen-year-old daughter, Amelia, live in Brooklyn, where Amelia attends Grace Hall, a hoity-toity private school. Despite Kate’s busy job, she and Amelia share a close bond, likely forged because it’s always been just the two of them. There have been a few bumps in the road recently: Kate chalks it up to teenage moodiness. Then she gets a call from the school: Amelia is being suspended, for plagiarizing an essay. The suspension is a shock to Kate because

Amelia had never been in trouble in her entire life. Her teachers called her a delight – bright, creative, thoughtful, focused. She excelled in athletics and was involved in every extracurricular activity under the sun. She volunteered once a month at CHIPS, a local soup kitchen, and regularly helped out at school events.

The accusation of cheating is clearly a mistake. However, when Kate arrives at Grace Hall she is devastated to discover that her daughter is dead (not a spoiler: it’s on the book jacket). Apparently, Amelia jumped from the roof of the school. Although Kate can’t quite believe her daughter would do such a thing, the police rule Amelia’s death a suicide and the case is closed.

That is until Kate gets an anonymous text: Amelia didn’t jump.

With the help of Lew, a crusty police detective, Kate begins reconstructing Amelia’s life only to discover that there were many things she didn’t know about her daughter.

There are dual narratives in McCreight’s book. Kate’s limited third person narrative allows us to take her journey, but we also have Amelia’s first person narration – which gives the reader a glimpse into a life Kate could never be privy to. There are also text conversations, Facebook posts, and an anonymous blog called ‘gRaCeFULLY,’ which tracks the comings and goings of Grace Hall students. All the bits fit together to create a picture of entitled girlhood and head-in-the-sand adulthood.

There are some bits of the book which didn’t necessarily belong (Rowan) and I am not 100% sure I bought some of the twists, (I won’t say which because, hello, spoilers) but that doesn’t mean I didn’t turn those pages at breakneck speed to find out what happened to Amelia and why.

I would like to think that the girls in Reconstructing Amelia are just fictional, but I know that’s naïve. Sometimes, even when we love our kids and feel close to them, we don’t always know what is really happening in their worlds. That’s the sad truth.

Great book.

Off the shelf – Books with buzz

Listen here.

There are always books which are hotly anticipated by the reading public. Avid readers know, for example, when their favourite authors will be releasing their next book. Publishers generate a lot of pre-publishing buzz and of course books that win major literary awards also garner extra attention. I think book buying has changed a lot in the forty years I’ve been buying books with my own money. I remember when the Scholastic book flyer was my only real opportunity to purchase books – and then all you had was this teensy picture of the cover and the equivalent of a tweet’s worth of description. When you could actually go into a book store and hold the books, well, that was heaven. I have books on my shelf that literally cost 60 cents. Can you believe that? Social media wasn’t even a twinkle in someone’s eye – so word of mouth or checking out top ten lists was really the only ways to hear which books were hot and which books were not.

goldfinchThen you have to wonder if all books with buzz are created equal. Even books that have won big prizes are often mired in controversy. A huge portion of my summer reading time was taken up with reading Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning magnum opus The Goldfinch. That book is close to 800 pages long and, for me at least, was thrilling and infuriating in equal measure. Not everyone agreed that it should have won the Pulitzer. In fact, The Washington Post called it “the disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer”  Lady Vowell Smith, a professor of literature and book blogger, wondered about the book’s merits in her post “Did the Goldfinch Deserve the Pulitzer?” The UK’s Sunday Times said “”no amount of straining for high-flown uplift can disguise the fact that The Goldfinch is a turkey”. Newsweek’s review said that “The Goldfinch neither sings nor flies.”  Ouch.

I am not much of a follower when it comes to reading, but I have read both of Tartt’s previous novels: The Secret History, which is my favourite and The Little Friend. Plus, my son, Con, read this book and really liked it – so I had to give it a go.

Okay – so what’s this book about?

Theo Decker is thirteen and lives with his mother in New York City. They are on their way to a meeting at Theo’s school when they duck into the Metropolitan Museum of Art to take a look at an exhibit of Dutch paintings, including that of The Goldfinch. Theo’s mom wanders off to the gift shop; Theo is entranced by a girl of about the same age, who is in the museum with her grandfather…and then there’s an explosion and Theo’s life is irrevocably altered. The old man, as he’s dying, encourages – insists – that Theo make off with the painting of the goldfinch and that’s certainly central to the book’s story – but that’s really only a part of it. Tartt wrestles with a lot of themes here: family – both biological and the family you choose, art, beauty, addiction. Theo isn’t necessarily the most likable character, even though lots of bad things happen to him he also makes a lot of poor decisions. This book is chock-a-block with characters – Boris, the friend Theo meets while living in Vegas; Hobie, a furniture restorer, the Barbours, family friends who care for Theo when his mom first dies. A lot of people, lots of stuff happens and it’s up to the reader to decide whether any of it matters. Does it add up to something worthy of praise in the form of the Pulitzer – that is if you think prizes matter at all. It probably mattered to Tartt to the tune of $100,000.

Another book that everyone is talking about is Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. When this manuscript was “discovered” it Watchmanexploded the publishing world – but really: discovered? Everyone knows Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird. Other than Mockingbird she is best known for helping Truman Capote (her childhood friend) with research for his book In Cold Blood. She published a handful of essays – but that’s it. She’s notoriously private and always maintained she’d never publish another book. So, it’s  kinda suspicious that this one turned up after all these years. It’s essentially an early draft of Mockingbird. Lee is 89, lives in assisted care and I think the publication of this book has something to do with the fact that her sister, Alice, sort of her gatekeeper, passed away. There’s an awesome series of articles about the discovery of Watchman and a look back at Mockingbird in The New Republic. The first article, “The Suspicious Story Behind Go Set a Watchman” is particularly interesting for anyone who wants to read the whole story behind the birth of Watchman.

Personally, I’ve resisted buying the book. I love Mockingbird. I’ve read it multiple times. Since I believe I know the story of how Watchman came to be, I’m reluctant to hand over my $30 for a book which has pretty much been panned. And of course it has – it’s unedited because Lee is blind and deaf and perhaps even the teensiest bit senile. The book’s a cash grab. I hate that.

In any case – if you are looking for something to read, something that will guarantee you something to talk about at the water cooler or dinner or with your book club, it’s easy to find those books.

If you are interested in  books that generated buzz, check out some of these titles.

girlontrain

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

This is this year’s Gone Girl. It’s on my tbr shelf, but I haven’t read it yet. I’m probably just about the last person who hasn’t.

purity

Purity – Jonathan Franzen

Famous for dissing Oprah, there’s no arguing with Franzen’s talent. His newest book hits the shelves Sept. 15.

Euphoria

Euphoria – Lily King

Inspired by the life of Margaret Mead and almost universally praised.

troop

The Troop – Nick Cutter

Unless you love horror novels, you might not have heard of this one…but trust me, everyone was talking about it.

spider

The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz

Stieg Larsson, the creator of the Millennium series, died of a heart attack in 2004, but that apparently won’t stop Lisbeth Salander, the series’ prickly computer genius. Hotly anticipated and hitting the shelves Sept 1st.

Bird Box – Josh Malerman

birdboxIt seemed like everyone was talking about Josh Malerman’s debut novel, Bird Box, but it was still a surprise when it was chosen as our April read for book club. In the 15 years we’ve been together we’ve never read anything even resembling a horror story. I was really looking forward to this one because I love a scary book.

Malorie lives alone in a house in a Detroit suburb with two children she calls Boy and Girl. The house used to be nice but now she notices the “rusted utensils and cracked dishes. The cardboard box used as a garbage can. The chairs, some held together by twine.” Clearly, it’s not situation normal and Malorie’s musings allude to “older stains,”  for which there are “no chemicals in the house to help clean.”

Malerman doesn’t waste any time with preamble. That’s probably a good thing because Bird Box relies on a heavy dose of the unknown to make it tick. Something has happened to the world. The “Internet has blown up with a story people are calling ‘the Russia Report.'” People are behaving monstrously, attacking strangers and family members in gruesome ways (a mother buries her children alive) before ending their own lives. It’s a “the whole world’s going crazy” scenario, but it spreads from Russia to North America (and who knows where else) like wildfire. The only way to prevent doing harm to others and yourself is to prevent yourself from seeing whatever is out there. People hole up in their houses, windows covered, and if they must venture outside, they wear a blindfold.

Bird Box bounces between Malorie’s perilous journey down the river in a boat (she’s heard that there is a safe community and after four years alone, she longs for something more for herself and her children who she laments “have never seen the sky. Have never looked out a window.” ) and her time in the house with a group of strangers she discovered through an advertisement in the paper.

I can’t say I was fussy about the beginning or the ending of Bird Box, but I was seriously creeped out in the middle. There’s a scene when members of the house have to go out into the backyard to get water from the well. They have to be blindfolded, of course, and a rope is tied around their waist. The person whose job it is to go to the well must make the journey three times. On this occasion, it’s Felix’s turn. On the third and final trip from the house to the well he hears a sound.

But now he can tell where it is coming from.

It is coming from inside the well.

He releases the crank and steps back. The bucket falls, crashing against the stone, before splashing below.

Something moved. Something moved in the water.

It’s moments like these when Bird Box is at its best. Like Malerman’s characters, we are blind and we realize that the scariest thing in the world is what we can’t see.

 

 

 

The Ice Cream Girls – Dorothy Koomson

icecreamTold in the alternating voices of Serena and Poppy, The Ice Cream Girls, by British writer Dorothy Koomson, is part suspense novel and part family drama. Koomson expertly weaves the story of two teenaged girls accused of murdering their history teacher, Marcus  Halnsley. They’re called ‘the ice cream girls’ because of a photograph of the pair wearing bikinis and eating ice cream. Their story, and their relationship with Halnsley,  is anything but sweet, though.

We meet Serena at the moment when her husband, Evan, proposes to her for the second time. We meet Poppy as she leaves prison, where she has been incarcerated for the past twenty years. These are two women, one black and one white, who might have never met if it hadn’t been for Halnsley.

We meet him through Serena first who says that “all the girls said he should be a film star because he was good-looking.” Serena doesn’t really like him at first because he was “always picking on me.” But when Mr. Halnsley starts to take a special interest in her, Serena feels singled out and special. Halnsley convinces her she could excel at History and offers to give her private lessons. It isn’t long before he crosses the line. It’s a simple (although inappropriate gesture) at first, but it’s easy to see how easily Halnsley manipulates fifteen-year-old Serena.

I walked home instead of getting the bus and along the way, I kept reaching up to touch my face. His touch had been so gentle and soft. And the way he said he wanted to take care of me made my stomach tingle upside down every time I ran it through in my head. He wanted to take care of me. That must mean I was special. Someone as clever and grown-up as him thought I was special.

Just a few short weeks after Halnsley has convinced Serena that he loves her, he meets Poppy. It’s clear, of course, that he’s a predator and that both Serena and Poppy are vulnerable despite the fact that they come from decent families. For the next couple of years the girls share the man who alternately abuses them and plays them off against each other – all the while convincing them that he loves them.

The story requires some finesse and Koomson does a terrific job of layering all the bits together. There’s a lot the reader wants to know. Why did Poppy go to prison, for example, and not Serena? Serena went on to college, met and married Evan (a doctor) and now lives in suburban bliss with her two children. Of course, behind the scenes she’s a hot mess. Every night before bed she has to hide all the knives.

The dinner knives are safe but the sharp ones, the ones that can do serious damage, seem to be missing in action. Admittedly, that’s my fault: I hid them last night, and I can’t quite remember where.

Things aren’t much better for adult Poppy, either. She arrives home to her parents only to discover that her father isn’t speaking to her, can’t even look at her and her mother

managed to sit down at the same table as me for more than three seconds. She didn’t make herself a cup of tea, so I knew she wasn’t staying, but it was a start. She actually came into the kitchen and didn’t immediately walk out again.

Poppy is intent on finding Serena and getting her to admit that she is actually responsible for Halnsley’s death and while their reluctant reunion dredges up all sorts of bad memories, it also allows the women to finally have a chance at exorcising the ghost of Halnsley, a man whose hold on them has poisoned their lives long after his death.

Great book.