Watching You – Lisa Jewell

01B345DC-2890-42FE-9E54-71D514747137The current flavour-of-the-month in book stores these days seems to be duplicitous nannies or wives, unreliable narrators of all stripes, characters and plots that simply can’t be trusted. In my experience, books like this come with varying degrees of pedigree. But then there’s Lisa Jewell.

Watching You is my third novel by this British writer. My first experience with Jewell was The Girls in the Garden and then I read I Found You. I always have another of her books waiting for me because I know I can depend on Jewell to deliver a cracking story, believable characters and a few unexpected twists.

Watching You takes place in Melville Heights, a tony neighbourhood in Bristol. The cast of characters is varied. There’s screw-up Josephine (Joey), newly married to gorgeous lug, Alfie. The two have recently returned to Melville Heights and are living with Joey’s older brother, Jack, a heart surgeon and his wife, Rebecca, who is pregnant. Then there’s Tom Fitzwilliam and his wife, Nicola, and their son, Freddie. Tom’s the new headmaster at the local school. Then there’s Jenna Tripp and her mother.

Everyone is watching everyone else in Melville Heights. Freddie spies on people from his bedroom window, keeping tabs on their comings and goings because “In the absence of  any friends or any real desire to have friends, Freddie had spent the past year or so compiling a dossier called The Melville Papers.” Down below, Mrs. Tripp is doing the same and while Freddie’s surveillance seems a bit creepy, Mrs. Tripp is clearly paranoid. And Joey watches Tom Fitzwilliam. She can’t help it.

Joey watched him walking back to his table. He wore a blue suit with a subtle check. The bottom buttons, she noticed, strained very gently against a slight softness and Joey felt a strange wave of pleasure, a sense of excitement about the unapologetic contours of his body, the suggestion of meals enjoyed and worries forgotten about over a bottle of decent wine. She found herself wanting to slide her fingers between those tensed buttons, to touch, just for a moment, the soft flesh beneath.

The story opens with a murder, a gory stabbing, and as the stories of this disparate cast of characters unravels, we watch (through a series of police interviews) the clues start to build a case. But of course, this is Lisa Jewell – so nothing is ever as it seems. They say you can never really know someone, and I think Jewell uses that premise to her advantage here. Who are these people? What are there motives? Where are their loyalties?

I had zero problem turning the pages. Ultimately, at the end of a book like this, you want to feel satisfied with the resolution. The red herrings have to be plausible at least. I like to try to figure things out along the way, and I don’t like it when the plot drives off the cliff of ridiculous. No chance of that here. Jewell masterfully manages all the players, even those with only a minor role to play.

Watching You is a great book to curl up with on these cold winter nights.

Foe – Iain Reid

foeFoe is my second novel by Canadian writer Iain Reid. I read  I’m Thinking of Ending Things  a couple of summers ago. I found that book deeply unsettling. And clever. Foe is well… deeply unsettling and clever.

Junior and his wife, Henrietta, Hen for short, live a sort of isolated existence out in the country. It’s just the two of them, so the arrival of a man, Terrance, is strange because as Junior remarks: “We don’t get visitors. Never have. Not out here.”

Terrance has come to tell Junior that he’s made OuterMore’s long list.

We’re an organization formed more than six decades ago. We started in the driverless automobile sector. Our fleet of self-driving cars was the most efficient and safest in the world. Our mandate changed over the years, and today it is very specific. We’ve moved out of the auto sector and into aerospace, exploration, and development. We’re working toward the next phase of transition.

Junior has been selected to go to space as part of The Installation, “the first wave of temporary resettlement.” Junior isn’t all that chuffed, but Terrance is pretty excited on his behalf. It’s not a done deal yet, of course, and Terrance will have to make several visits over the coming months because if he is chosen, Hen will be provided with a companion – someone who looks and talks and acts just like Junior; someone who is 3D printed just for her – to stay with her while her husband is gone.

When Terrance actually moves into their house to collect data (although even that is vague enough to cause Junior unease), Junior starts to feel his marriage unraveling. Hen is distant and secretive. The structure of their very ordered lives starts to crumble. Junior becomes more paranoid. It won’t be long before you, too, will be wondering just what in the heck is going on.

You’ll be swept along by Reid’s unfussy prose and metaphysical questions. Junior tries to remember his life before Hen, but his life “was unremarkable, unmemorable.”

We only get so much mental space in which to store our memories, and there’s no reason for me to waste it on what came before.

Reid builds on these questions of identity and memory, while also creating an ominous atmosphere. I love unreliable narrators, and Reid is especially good at writing them. Reid is definitely an author to keep your eye on.

The Voice of the Night – Dean Koontz

I have read more than one novel by Dean Koontz, most memorably his 7939529 thriller Intensity.  I wouldn’t say I am a fan, really, but I know that I can depend on him to deliver a decently-written page-turner.

The Voice of the Night tells the story of fourteen-year-old Colin, who moves with his newly divorced mother to Santa Leona, a coastal town near San Francisco. There he meets Roy, a kid who is the same age, but who possesses all the qualities Colin lacks: charisma, confidence and good looks.  Colin has never really had a best friend before, and for some reason Roy seems to take a shine to him.

But it’s a sinister shine. Roy is fascinated with death. He wants to know if Colin has ever killed anything. He brags that he has, but Colin is pretty certain, at least at first, that it’s some sort of friendship test. When Roy brags about torturing a cat,

…Colin sensed that Roy was testing him. He felt certain that the gruesome story about the cat was just the latest test, but he couldn’t imagine what Roy had wanted him to say or do. Had he passed or failed?

Despite Colin’s uneasiness, Roy is “just about the best friend a guy could ask for.” Until he isn’t. And it doesn’t take long for The Voice in the Night to kick into high gear.

There are no adults in this book. Colin’s mother is running an art gallery and getting her post-divorce sea legs under her. She is rarely home. Colin’s dad takes him fishing once with a bunch of his friends, who are all drunk jerks. Roy’s parents, too, are MIA. When Colin’s relationship with Roy begins to unravel, he is all alone to try to figure it out. And more and more, Colin begins to feel as though his life depends on it.

The Voice in the Night clicks along without too much interference. The cast of characters is small, their motivations obvious and the conclusion, although a tad trite, is believable.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters – Keith Donohue

Who in the hell knows what really happens in Keith Donohue’s odd but utterly 108FC969-09A2-4584-905C-31766A67CC7Bcompelling novel The Boy Who Drew Monsters. I mean, sure, I could follow the story’s claustrophobic narrative, but at the end of the day I was still shaking my head and going WTF.

Holly and Tim live with their son, ten-year-old Jack Peter, in a small town on the coast of Maine. Jack Peter has never been 100% okay, but when he was seven he almost drowned and since then he “has not suffered easily any human touch.” He also can’t bear leaving the house; if not for his friend Nick, and his parents, Jack Peter would be completely isolated.

Jack Peter had been an inside boy for over three years. Hadn’t been to school, rarely left the house. One by one, his few old friends had nearly forgotten about him, and they always gave Nick grief for continuing his strange friendship.

These characters are isolated anyway. Their community is scattered; Jack Peter and his parents live way out on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It’s winter and constant snow is always further isolating them – so it seems.

Things are about to get slightly creepier, though. For example, driving Nick home one night, Tim sees something unsettling.

Uncoiling, the white mass transformed itself into a living figure rising from a crouch, its pale skin glowed sepulchral blue in the moonlight and it turned with a hunch of its shoulders and began to shuffle away.

Holly starts to have strange visions, too. She imagines the dead from a ship which sank off the coast. One night, home alone with Jack Peter, a “rapid-fire staccato that traveled the length of the waterfront wall” of her house startles her into exiting the house in her slippers to investigate.

As each of the small cast of characters in this novel are visited by stranger and stranger hallucinations – if that’s even what they can be called – Jack Peter’s behaviour grows increasingly more strange. He draws incessantly. And guess what he draws? Yep.

The Boy Who Drew Monsters, not gonna lie, was a weird one for me. I can’t really say with any certainty that I actually knew what was going on. It’s sort of a horror novel by way of the gothic, and sort of a family drama, too. For a while I thought Jack Peter might be autistic and then I started to doubt that diagnosis. When I closed the final page, I still wasn’t certain what I had just read, but I’ve certainly never read anything else like it.

The Hesitation Cut – Giles Blunt

The Hesitation Cut is my first experience with Canadian writer Giles Blunt, who is 34AC2891-84BC-4F62-A5DA-5AAC7D6F7FEFperhaps most famous for his crime novels which feature Detective John Cardinal. (I have watched a couple of those novels brought to the small screen and have found them super intense; I can only imagine what the reading experience would be like.)

In this standalone, 30-year-old Brother William is living the cloistered life of a monk in Rochester, upstate New York. He’s been at Our Lady Of Peace for ten years, living a life punctuated by ritual. One of William’s jobs is to work in the monastery’s library and it is there he meets Lauren, a writer who has come to do research on Peter Abelard, the famous philosopher  from 12th century France, who had an ill-fated relationship with his student, Heloise.

Brother William is almost immediately smitten with Lauren. When he arrives at the library “it was like coming upon a small animal in the forest.” There is something about Lauren that draws William, like the moon pulls the water (if I can make such a clumsy comparison). He is helpless against its pull and when he notices “a scar across her wrist”, he’s done for. Lauren becomes William’s next calling. He decides she’s in trouble and he can save her.

So, he gives up his life, takes back his name (Peter, surely no coincidence) and heads to New York City. A lot of pieces click into place (his estranged brother has saved his share of the family estate, so suddenly a former monk without worldly possessions has disposable cash), he gets a job, and relatively easily in a city the size of NY, tracks Lauren down.  Although I am not sure I bought it, there’s an empty basement studio in the very same building where Lauren lives, and so Peter moves in and befriends her.

The thing about these two characters is that neither of them are even remotely likeable. While Peter pretends to be altruistic, Lauren makes no effort to hide the fact that she is damaged goods; in fact, in some ways, she seems to enjoy the wallowing.  To be fair, she tries to warn Peter:

”Peter, I have my work and nothing else. Nothing. I’m not what you think, or need, or want. I’m just a selfish bitch, you see.”

Peter almost takes this as a personal challenge. Lauren WILL love him.

Then, along comes Mick, Lauren’s former lover. He’s the proverbial bad boy, but he’s actually one of the most likeable characters in the whole book. His arrival on the scene throws Peter into a tailspin.

The Hesitation Cut was easy to read. I couldn’t put it down. Did I buy all the pieces chinking together? No. Did it matter? Probably not. Blunt has constructed a well-made play, peopled with mostly despicable characters. Whether you care about their fates won’t actually impact your enjoyment of their sad journeys.

You Should Have Known – Jean Hanff Korelitz

32555CAA-AE7E-4E76-8348-87072A3324C0Grace Sachs, the protagonist in Jean Hanff Korelitz’s compelling domestic thriller You Should Have Known, is an outspoken marriage counsellor who believes that women know from the very beginning if their partners are duds.

Over and over I’ve heard women describe their early interactions with their partner, and their early impressions of their partner. And listening to them, I continually thought: You knew right at the beginning. She knows he’s never going to stop looking at other women. She knows he can’t save money. She knows he’s contemptuous of her…But then she somehow lets herself unknow what she knows.

Grace’s tough talk is easy enough: she’s married to the perfect man, Jonathan, a pediatric oncologist and they have a twelve-year-old-son, Henry.

…she had chosen him, and now, as a result, she was having the right life, with the right husband, the right child, the right home, the right work.

Turns out, though, that all those rights actually make a wrong.

When the mother of one of the students at Henry’s school is murdered, the violent act opens up a fissure in Grace’s perfect life. First, her husband, who is away at a medical conference, stops answering her calls and texts. Then,  she discovers his phone  – not with him, but hidden in his bedside table. And then the police come knocking.

Grace’s life – it turns out – is a sham, and You Should Have Known unravels like any good thriller, stringing the reader (and Grace) along. The whodunit part of the story isn’t actually what’s interesting about Hanff Korelitz’s narrative though. It’s that Grace, a therapist who tells her patients to trust their guts, didn’t trust hers.

 

Into the Darkest Corner – Elizabeth Haynes

Party girl Catherine Bailey meets handsome and mysterious Lee Brightman at a nightclub. C’mon, ladies. Nothing darkest corner good ever comes from meeting some guy at a nightclub – especially a guy who seems too good to be true. But this meet cute is what sets Elizabeth Haynes’ crazy stalker story in motion. There are two narrative threads in Into the Darkest Corner. There’s the unraveling of Cathy and Lee’s romance (if you can call it that),  and there’s Cathy’s subsequent escape from Lee’s clutches and her attempt to live her life.

Post-Lee Cathy lives a quiet life in a flat in London. Just getting out of the house causes her severe anxiety.

I shut the front door firmly and turned the lock, checking that the bolt had shot home by rattling the door a few times. With my fingertips I traced around the edges of the doorframe, feeling that the door was flush with the frame. I turned the doorknob six times, to make sure it was properly closed. One, two, three, four, five, six. Then the doorframe again. Then the doorknob, six times. One, two, three, four, five, six.  Then the lock. Once, and again. Then the doorframe. Lastly the knob, six times. I felt the relief that comes when I managed to do this properly.

Although it may be hard to reconcile this Cathy with the girl who admitted that the best part of a night out is “finding some dark corner of the club and being fucked against a wall”, her transformation won’t seem so far-fetched once she tells the story of how her Prince Charming turned into a sadistic psychopath. (Well, ‘turned into’ is a bit of a misnomer; Lee was always a sadistic psycho.)

There’s nothing new in Into the Darkest Corner. Readers know from the beginning how the story will unfold; the only things missing are the particulars. Haynes metes out the details in a timely fashion and it’s a page-turner, for sure, but Cathy isn’t a particularly likeable character. Sure, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for her; she has suffered terribly, but I just didn’t love her. Maybe that doesn’t matter. Because Stuart does.

Stuart’s the handsome, single child psychologist who moves into the flat upstairs and very willingly dives head-first into Cathy’s crazy. It’s perhaps the teensiest bit contrived, but without the introduction of someone in her life, Cathy would probably still be triple (times two) checking the locks on her door.

Into the Darkest Corner is not the worst of the genre, for sure, and I definitely wouldn’t be opposed to reading more books by this author.

Final Girls – Riley Sager

finalI didn’t realize that the term “final girls” actually referred to the last girl standing in a horror film. I chalk it up to not being a fan of stalker-type films; I can’t deal with the violence.  According to Vox “Final Girls are tough enough and strong enough to make it to end — the only people still standing when the last trickle of blood has hit the floor.” (It’s worth reading the whole article, actually, as it’s a really interesting look at Final Girls.)

Riley Sager (a  pseudonym for author Todd Ritter – and what is it about all these pseudonyms lately?) has taken this horror movie trope and spun it into his best seller Final Girls…although I would disagree with the ‘best’ part of it.

Ten years after her best friends were massacred in a remote cabin, Quincy Carpenter, the only survivor,  is still trying to recover. Now she’s a NYC baking blogger living with her lawyer boyfriend in NYC. She smooths out the rough edges of her life with Xanax, a little kleptomania, and sporadic visits with Coop, the cop who saved her life that night in the woods. He’s her touchstone, the one person who understands what she endured and ultimately survived that night when she escaped from Him. (That’s what Quincy calls the killer – a moniker that never stopped reminding me of  a BDSM master/slave.)

She’s not the only Final Girl, though. There’s Lisa, who survived a sorority house massacre at the hands of a crazed psycho and Sam, who lived through the Sack Man’s rampage at the Nightlight Inn. Lisa reaches out to Quincy with an offer to teach her how to be a Final Girl.  Sam is MIA until she unexpectedly shows up on Quincy’s door and Quincy’s life begins to unravel.

It’s Lisa’s death – an apparent suicide –  which is the catalyst for Sam’s arrival in New York and Quincy’s sudden departure from her quiet life. Sam is a bit of a wild child and suddenly Quinn’s drinking too much Wild Turkey and walking through Central Park after midnight – just looking for trouble. Sam provokes Quinn.

I want to see you get angry. You’ve earned that rage. Don’t try to hide it behind your website with your cakes and muffins and breads. You’re messed up. So am I. It’s okay to admit it. We’re damaged goods, babe.

The past starts closing in on Quincy and the book definitely does pick up some momentum even if I didn’t believe the ending one bit.

Final Girls suffers in comparison to  The Woman in the Window even though the books aren’t strictly in the same genre. I started Final Girls and read probably 100 pages and then started The Woman in the Window, which I absolutely couldn’t put down, even though I did figure out some of the twists in advance. Final Girls just felt clunky to me by comparison. Quincy is shrill and not particularly sympathetic and yes, of course, she survived a horrific event and I should cut her some slack, except that I just didn’t  care about her.

I am a big fan of psychological thrillers and I am definitely in the minority here. Even Stephen King called this book “the first great thriller of 2017.” For me, Final Girls just didn’t fulfill its blood-spattered promise.

 

 

The Woman in the Window – A.J. Finn

The-Woman-in-the-Window-A_-J_-FinnHoly unreliable narrator, Batman! There seems to be a whole slew of books of this type post- The Girl on the Train. A.J. Finn (nom de plume of Daniel Mallory, executive editor at Morrow) adds yet another to the cast with Anna Fox, the first person narrator in The Woman in the Window. A student in one of my classes wanted to read this book, so I bought it for my classroom library. He read it lickety-split and then encouraged me to read it, which I did, in two breathless days.

Anna Fox is a watcher. From the windows of her  Victorian home in Harlem, she watches the lives of her neighbours. “My Nikon D5500 doesn’t miss much, not with that Opteka lens,” she admits.

From her vantage point, she can observe people living their daily lives: cheating spouses, book club meetings, teenagers playing video games and musical instruments. Slowly it is revealed that Anna is separated from her husband and daughter, and also suffers from agoraphobia. As Anna explains “Agoraphobic fears…include being outside the home alone; being in a crowd, or standing in a line; being on a bridge.” She considers herself to be an extreme case, “the most severely afflicted…grappling with post-traumatic stress disorder.”

She occupies her time on the Internet, learning French and playing chess and overseeing a discussion board called Agora, set up for other sufferers of her condition. (She’s actually qualified because before her life went south, Anna was a psychologist.)  She’s a fan of old movies, particularly noir films, and merlot – of which she drinks a lot. The fear of being outside the safety of her mansion/prison is not the only problem in Anna’s life; she is clearly depressed and self-medicating with alcohol and the drugs her own psychiatrist prescribes, a lethal combination that impacts what Anna sees one night.

That would be a murder.

By then, Finn has done such a good job of portraying Anna as such a hot mess that readers won’t know what to believe. Anna doesn’t either. When the police investigate the crime, they discover there’s no body and the person Anna thought she saw doesn’t even exist. Oh, what a tangled web.

Keeping Anna trapped in her house ups the suspense ante, for sure. Her days are often a drunken blur and even when she tries to get it together so that she can figure out what she saw or didn’t see, she just can’t. Despite this, Anna is a sympathetic character, whose well-being you will care about, especially when you discover one of the novel’s central plot points (which I did relatively early on but, trust me, that in no way hindered my enjoyment of this novel).

The Woman in the Window has garnered a lot of buzz and for good reason. It’s well-written, page-turning fun, with a beating heart at its core.

Highly recommended.

Watching Edie – Camilla Way

Camilla Way is a new-to-me author,  but after reading Watching Edie I would definitely watchingediebe amenable to reading more. Told by two characters Heather (who narrates ‘Before’) and Edie (who narrates ‘After’), Watching Edie is about the adolescent friendship between the two girls, their subsequent estrangement and what happens when Heather re-enters Edie’s life many years later.

Edie, 33, is living in London when the literal knock on her door comes.

I’m entirely unprepared for what’s waiting for me beyond the heavy, wide front door and when I open it the world seems to tilt and I have to grip the doorframe to stop myself from falling. Because there she is, standing on my doorstep, staring back at me. There, after all this time, is Heather.

It’s clear that whatever happened between the two girls has taken its emotional toll; however,  Edie invites Heather in for tea and they make polite conversation. Nevertheless, Edie is suspicious of Heather’s re-appearance in her life even though she has “imagined this, dreamed of this, dreaded this, so many hundreds of  times for so many years.”

Heather’s narrative fills in the back story of how the two girls met at the end of Year 11. (In England, students would be sixteen at this point, destined to move on to A-levels or employment.) Heather is a bit of a loner at school, so while she is outside with her peers, she’s not joining in on the fun. That’s when she first sees Edie.

As I watch, her facing appearing and then disappearing  behind others in the crowd, she stops, her eyes squinting up at the building before darting around herself again and then finally landing upon me. I hold my breath. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone so pretty before, not in real life.

The girls, despite their differences, bond over their shared fraught parental relationships and their hatred of their hometown, Fremton, which Heather describes as “horrible.”  And then, Edie meets Connor. Heather doesn’t like him on sight, although he’s “very handsome.” She doesn’t understand “this strange heat that’s there in the crackling, held-breath space between them; I only know that it has no place for me.”

Heather makes another present-day appearance in Edie’s life after the first reunion. And this time, Edie is grateful. She’s just given birth to her daughter, Maya, product of a one-night-stand with a co-worker and she’s sunk into a horrible post-partum depression. Heather arrives – one can only imagine she’s been nearby, watching – and takes over, looking after the baby, letting Edie sleep for hours at a time, but also cutting Edie off from her Uncle Geoff, her closest relation. When Edie befriends a new neighbor and starts to come out of her funk, she sends Heather away again.

It’s clear that something traumatic has happened between the two girls, but Way doesn’t give up the secret easily. Heather is actually, especially in her sixteen-year-old incarnation, a very sympathetic character. Edie has many redeeming qualities, but her life is seriously derailed when she meets Connor. The girls’ story is both heartbreaking and horrific and it makes for riveting reading.