The Perfect Girlfriend – Karen Hamilton

perfectgfThere’s no nuance in Karen Hamilton’s debut novel The Perfect Girlfriend. The narrator, Juliette (aka Lily. aka Elizabeth) is crazy. For reasons. She’s on a mission: to reclaim Nate, the man who dumped her seven months ago, unceremoniously kicking her out of his swanky Richmond (near London) flat.

Nearly seven months ago, Nate had appeared in a chapter of my life like a scene from a romantic novel. As I’d taken my gaze away from my computer screen at the hotel reception desk – a work smile fixed firmly in place – I’d struggled not to gasp out loud. The man in front of me looked as though he had absorbed the best bits of life and shrugged off anything unpleasant or sad.

A one-night stand turns into co-habitation, but that is short lived and Nate tells Juliette that he needs some space. He finds her a new apartment in Reading, moves her in, pays three months rent for her and bids her adieu. Of course, Juliette isn’t having any of it. She wants Nate and “his family’s welcoming acceptance, the comfortable lifestyle and kids who grow up to be a footballer….”

Juliette has a plan. First, she takes the course to be a flight attendant. (Nate is a pilot.) She makes sure that she doesn’t bump into him, thus providing him with the “space” he claimed to need. She tries to make friends. She tries to “improve” herself in an effort to be, well, the perfect girlfriend.

Perfect psycho girlfriend.

Hamilton pulls out all the stops when it comes to unhinging Juliette. She has keys to Nate’s apartment. She knows all his passwords. She puts spyware on his phone. She knows his work schedule. She sabotages any perceived romantic relationship between Nate and other women. And if you think these psycho ex-girlfriend moves are mere child’s play, just wait.

There is also the problem of Bella. Her identity is revealed slowly, so I won’t spoil it here. She is a thorn in Juliette’s side and as Juliette says herself “Revenge is a dish best served cold, and mine is going to be frozen.”

Look, we’ve all had a relationship that has made us a little bit crazy. I am pretty sure I have done more than one slightly crazy thing to get the desired object of my affection to like me back. The trouble with Juliette is that she has no dimension. I think we’re supposed to feel some sympathy for her because of a childhood trauma, but I didn’t. Another “big” reveal is meant to add fuel to that flame, but it really just seems more convenient than anything.

Still, the unembellished prose races through the crazy landscape of Juliette’s plan to win Nate back and most readers will enjoy the ride.

Topping From Below – Laura Reese

In the world of BDSM, topping from below means that the submissive partner is actually toppingtrying to control the scene, aka control the top (dominant person). That’s exactly what Nora Tibbs is attempting when she pursues a relationship with Michael (referred to as M.) the music professor she’s convinced murdered her younger sister, Franny,  in Laura Reese’s novel Topping From Below.

It’s reasonable that a reader’s first question might be why in the hell she would get involved with the dude she thinks tortured and killed her sister. Is it because “He is swarthy, good-looking, if you like that type, slimly muscled and dark-complected, with an angular face that could have been sculpted….”  Or is it because Nora feels like she can control any situation?

Whatever the case, the cunning M. knows who Nora is from their meet cute and, says the spider to the fly, come on over and I’ll make you dinner and tell you stories about how I degraded your sister, but whom I most certainly did not kill, and in exchange, you’ll let me tie you up, and abuse your body in numerous other ways and trust me, you’ll like it.

The thing is, Nora does  like it.  She likes it even when M. hurts her, which I suppose is one of the tenets of BDSM: pain and pleasure combined under controlled circumstances. She tries to make sense of it but “My feelings are paradoxical: I hate him, fear him, yet at the same time his dominion over me, however brief, is intoxicating.”

She likes it so much that she no longer feels anything remotely like sexual desire towards her bland, blond, dependable boyfriend, Ian. M. sucks her further and further into his world and reveals to Nora, bit by by, her sister Franny. He also encourages Nora to reveal parts of her own life that she’s kept buried for many years, to try to get to the underlying reasons for why she seems to lack the ability to get truly close to anyone. Despite the fact that there’s a ten-year age gap between Franny and Nora, they are similar on that front.

Obviously, readers will have to suspend disbelief to reconcile how a seemingly intelligent woman (she’s a bloody science journalist, for goodness sake) would allow herself to pursue the guy she thinks killed her sister. It’s not the kinky sex that’s at issue here, really, because you’ll find no judgement from me on that front.  There are some instances of “Really? Um, a world of no,” but Reese writes it all like she means it and I have to admire that. Lots of people would find the sex in this book unpalatable.  Let me put it this way; Topping from Below is NOT your garden-variety Fifty Shades of Grey

 

Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith

Child 44, Tom Rob Smith’s 2008 debut, likely would have languished on my tbr shelf indefinitely if it hadn’t been for Litsy  Every month, a Litsy member, Sarah,  hosts a book spin. We choose 20 books from our TBR shelf and she chooses two random numbers, a #bookspin and a #doublespin. It’s our opportunity to clear some books from our shelves. Even if you end up abandoning the books (which I did the first couple months), at least they’re off your shelves.

child44Leo Demidov is a member of MGB, Russia’s State Security Force under Stalin. It’s 1959 and everyone is suspicious of everyone else. Leo has arrived at his position by way of a decorated stint in the army. He’s good at his job. He

enjoyed the independence of his operations, although he was careful to keep that observation to himself. […] He’d flourished. As a result he’d been awarded the Order of Suvorov Second Class. His levelheadedness, military success, good looks and above all his absolute and sincere belief in his country had resulted in him becoming a poster boy …

Things get dicey for Leo, though, when he is asked to check in with a colleague who insists that his four-year-old son has been murdered. The authorities have called the death an accident, though, and Leo is tasked with convincing the family that no further investigation is needed. This event is the beginning of the cracks in Leo’s life and his belief in a state where Stalin’s “well-known aphorism Trust but Check” actually means “Check on Those We Trust.” It is almost impossible to determine who is trustworthy because everyone seems to have something to hide.

When an operation Leo is in charge of goes awry, he’s demoted and sent to work in a backwater town. That’s when the bodies start piling up, bodies of kids. Leo convinces his new boss that there’s a serial killer on the loose and the two men start investigating – no easy task when the authorities aren’t really willing to share information, even with each other.

Child 44 is a thriller and there were certainly some exciting moments. Leo is a great character, and I was invested in his growth from rule-follower to renegade truth-seeker. I think this books, which is the first in a series, would likely appeal to many readers, but I felt sort of ambivalent about it. Perhaps it was all the Russian names, or the fact that we got just about every character’s backstory and so the plot dragged a little.

Still, I had no trouble reading it. It’s a solid book.

Follow Me Down – Sherri Smith

When Mia’s twin brother Lucas goes missing after being linked to the death of one of his followstudents, Mia has no choice but to return to her small North Dakota hometown. Sherri Smith’s debut novel Follow Me Down plumbs the depths of sibling ties, and uncovers the slimy underbelly of a town that seems to be filled with dark secrets and duplicitous characters.

Mia isn’t exactly living her best life in Chicago when the Wayoata Police Chief calls her asking if she’s heard from her brother. (She hasn’t.) She works the night shift at a corner pharmacy, lives alone and is generally a prickly character. Lucas was always the golden child.

Lucas was already showing signs of how annoyingly good-looking he was going to be.[…] Blond, startling blue eyes, and movie star bone structure. […] As an adult, I’d actually witnessed women going slack-jawed over him, like, unable to speak for a few seconds as they took him in.

Mia is convinced that her brother is innocent of any wrongdoing; he just doesn’t have it in him to hurt anyone. He is a beloved English teacher and hockey coach at the local high school. The local police, including her childhood friend Garrett Burke, seem to have their sights set on Lucas, though, and Mia is sure that she has to a) find her brother and b) prove his innocence.

To say Follow Me Down is jam packed is an understatement. Mia ignores Garrett and turns over every rock possible trying to figure out what might have happened, not only to her brother but to the teenager he is accused of killing. The rumour mill is working overtime, and people in the community seem to think that Lucas and Joanna Wilkes were having an affair. Mia’s amateur investigation seems to stir up a hornet’s nest. A black truck keeps following her and trying to run her off the road; someone seems to be sneaking into her brother’s apartment and taking things; there are more shady characters than you can shake a stick at.

The whole time Mia is sleuthing, she’s self-medicating from her own personal stash of prescription meds. On more than one occasion, I wondered whether she was a reliable narrator. I can’t say that I warmed to her, really.

Still, by about the half-way mark there was no turning away from this story. I needed to know what happened to Lucas, and even if Mia didn’t exactly endear herself to me, I was still invested in her quest for answers.

A solid read.

Deep Winter – Samuel W. Gailey

deepwinter-3My son actually purchased this Samuel W. Gailey’s novel Deep Winter because he liked the cover. In my experience, this isn’t generally a great way to choose a book, but when he was doing a purge this book ended up off his bookshelf and on mine because I thought it sounded good.

This is the story of Danny Bedford, a man who, when he was a kid,  suffered brain-damage after a near drowning that cost him the lives of both his parents. Since then he has been raised by an abusive uncle and now lives a solitary life over the laundromat where he works. His only friend is a waitress named Mindy.

Danny lives in Wyalusing, a backwater town in Eastern Pennsylvania. When the novel opens, Danny has trekked the three miles out to Mindy’s trailer to deliver a carved bird he’s made for her birthday. He comes across a scene of horror: Mindy is dead. 

Her body sprawled out on the trailer floor next to Danny like a discarded rag doll. He knelt beside her with his hands folded and clenched together in his lap, like he was praying at her bedside. Blood soaked into the faded carpet from an open wound on the back of her head, and a few pieces of jagged glass were still stuck in her scalp.

Because Danny intellectually impaired, it’s easy to pin Mindy’s death on him, and that’s exactly what happens. What follows is the story of that death, and the malevolent tendrils that reach out into the community because of it.  The story is told from multiple points of view, which probably helps things move along. 

Gailey’s novel is populated by a relatively unpleasant cast of characters, most notably Sokowski, the Deputy, and his side-kick, Carl. In fact, the villains are so awful they’re almost caricatures. It takes place in the dead of winter, during a storm, and is almost relentlessly grim. 

Gailey has written for film and TV and that’s how Deep Winter reads. There’s not a lot of literary bells and whistles, here. That’s not a criticism, really, although I didn’t love the book. It’s a straightforward, nuance-free crime thriller and I doubt you’d have any trouble turning the pages. 

Before We Met – Lucie Whitehouse

86364353-FF33-4875-B41D-4A13891EA2B3When Hannah’s husband, Mark, doesn’t arrive home from a business trip as planned, Hannah is sent down a rabbit hole of lies. Sounds like every other thriller, right? I can happily say that Lucie Whitehouse’s novel Before We Met is a cracking good read that had me turning the pages way past my bed time.

Mark and Hannah met in NYC where Hannah had been living and working for an advertising agency. Mark was there on business, but when the relationship headed into serious territory they made the decision to return to London, the home base for Mark’s successful IT company.

When Mark doesn’t get off his flight and doesn’t answer his phone, Hannah starts to panic, but not in the ridiculous way some heroines in thrillers do. Even though she and Mark have only been married for eight months, she knows him. The novel flashes back to their introduction, via friends, and their courtship. Hannah had really believed that she’d spend the rest of her life in New York, perhaps alone, but Mark changes all that. Now, although she’s unemployed, she’s married to a charming, wealthy and handsome man.

When Mark finally does contact Hannah, with a story that is so crazy it’s almost plausible, Hannah does believe him. Kind of, sort of. But something just doesn’t add up for her and she starts poking around. She wants to make sure that “he hadn’t hidden [anything] to conceal evidence of money spent on hotels and dinners and presents for someone else.”

What I appreciated about Before We Met is that it was full of twists and turns that kept me changing my mind about what was going on, and I love that. I hate it when you can see the plot twist coming from a mile away and when the characters behave in a way that just isn’t realistic.  Hannah is no dummy and she doesn’t take  crazy risks to figure out what in the heck is going on. I was right there with her every step of the way.

So, if you are looking for a well-written page turner with an intelligent, sympathetic main character and a plot that’ll keep you on your toes, I highly recommend Before We Met. It’s a perfect book to curl up with on a cold winter’s night.

A Brief Lunacy – Cynthia Thayer

Jessie and Carl have been married for many years, happy years from the sounds of things. They are spending some time at their isolated cottage in the woods in Maine. Their lives together have fallen into a rhythm that will be recognizable to most people; they have a shorthand. But things for the pair are about to become complicated.

Cynthia Thayer’s novel A Brief Lunacy examines the fault lines in a marriage. 15CE5884-6960-432B-8415-E41334905966Sometimes those cracks don’t appear until something remarkable happens and the catalyst in this novel is the arrival of  Jonah, a mysterious young man who turns up at their cottage, claiming to have had all his camping gear stolen. Carl insists Jonah head up the road to the highway, but Jonah finagles his way into a dinner invitation and crashing on the couch for the night. In the morning, all hell breaks loose.

It turns out that Jonah isn’t exactly who he says he is. In fact, he’s Jessie and Carl’s daughter Sylvie’s boyfriend. Earlier that day, they’d received a call from the care facility where Sylvia has been living as a psychiatric patient to inform them that she’d gone missing. Jonah’s arrival is no coincidence. He’s come to get to know Carl and Jessie and his arrival forces them to reveal things about themselves to each other that they never expected to divulge. Carl, in particular, has been harbouring a dark secret for decades.

Despite the fact that I found the way that Carl and Jessie spoke to each other rather stilted, I still found A Brief Lunacy a compelling book. The whole encounter between the couple and Jonah lasts under 24 hours, but it’s pretty intense. Bad things happen. Jonah, it won’t take readers long to figure out, is completely unhinged.

A Brief Lunacy has lots to say about survival and what we are willing to do to save ourselves and those we love.

 

Peril – Thomas H. Cook

My first finished book of 2020 is Thomas H. Cook’s 2004 novel Peril. Unlike most of the perilother books I’ve read by  Cook, which have generally focused on one narrator, Peril lets the reader see the same set of circumstances through a variety of lenses.

Sara Labriola is hoping to disappear. After nine years of marriage to Tony, she can’t go on and so one day she packs her clothes, leaves her wedding ring and takes the bus into Manhattan.

Tony is devastated when he discovers Sara missing, but his father, Leo, is furious. Leo is a thug who berates everyone around him, including Tony who has never had the nerve to stand up to him. Leo tells his guy Caruso to find Sara and Caruso leverages the help of Mortimer Dodge because he owes Leo money. Dodge works for a guy named Stark, a guy whose job it is to find people.

Need a chart yet? Let’s recap.

Sara runs away from Tony.

Tony wants to find his wife before his father does because he knows that if Leo finds her first the consequences will be grim. He tasks his employee and friend Eddie with helping him.

Leo gets Caruso on the job. Caruso gets Mortimer on the job. Mortimer gets Stark on the job.

Sara is in NY and thinks she has found a job singing in a night club owned by Abe, who happens to know Mortimer.

It all sounds way more complicated than it is and it’s actually way more compelling than this, too, and that’s because, well, Thomas H. Cook wrote it.

You know how you can read some thrillers or mysteries and they’re just straight ahead books that are driven by plot but not much else? Yeah, that’s not Cook. There is not a character in this novel who doesn’t have a totally believable backstory that makes them, even when they are not particularly likeable, sympathetic. (The exception here is Leo Labriola, who is a misogynistic asshat.) And I mean every character, even characters we only meet a couple times, like the mother of Sara’s neighbour, Della.

And if you think all this backstory is going to bog down the plot – which would be bad, too – forget about it. You’ll turn the pages lickety-split because, well, Thomas H. Cook. He balances character and story and even if some of what happens here seems a tad too coincidental, you won’t care. At all.

There’s something old school about Peril. It’s like a noir film, peopled with shadowy gangsters in crumpled hats, a beautiful, fragile heroine who earns the good will of the men she meets, and a bunch of guys who ultimately, turn out to be loyal and decent.

You will NEVER be wasting your time reading a Cook book. (Couldn’t resist.)

We Could Be Beautiful – Swan Huntley

beautifulCatherine West wants a family – which is sort of funny once you get to know her. The narrator of Swan Huntley’s novel We Could Be Beautiful  is vain, spoiled and selfish. It’s hard to imagine  she’d ever be selfless enough to have kids. Plus, she’s pushing the biological envelope: Catherine’s 43.

She thinks she has everything it would take to be a mother, but when she categorizes her success, it feels like having a baby would be just one more accessory.

I was rich, I owned a small business,  I had a wardrobe I replaced all the time. I was tones enough and pretty enough. I moisturized,  I worked out. I looked younger than my age. I had been to all the countries I wanted to see. I collected art and filled my West  Village apartment with it. My home was bright and tastefully bare and worthy of a spread in a magazine.

The only problem is that Catherine’s single. She’s had lots of boyfriends (and a girlfriend), and two broken engagements, but now she’s alone. Her most significant relationship is with Dan, the massage therapist who comes to her house to rub her neurosis away.

Then she meets William Stockton, a “stunning, square-jawed man with gentle eyes and elegant gray hair, full and parted to the side.” There’s something familiar about him, and as it turns out William’s parents and Catherine’s parents used to be great friends. Catherine is several years younger than William, so her memories of him are vague.

Almost immediately, Catherine is smitten and too-good-to-be-true William is moving in. On paper, he seems like a great guy (he’s educated, has a good job in banking, he’s charming and attentive), but readers will clue in that there’s something not quite right. Catherine isn’t so swift on the uptake.

We Could Be Beautiful is billed as a thriller, and it certainly reads like one.  I mean, you’ll certainly figure out pretty quickly that William is up to something, even if you’re not sure what it is. When Catherine mentions William to her mother, who is suffering from dementia, Mrs. West’s reaction is visceral. Then Catherine finds a box of old ephemera, including a letter from a long-ago nanny which alludes to some event that she hadn’t protected Catherine from.

Probably the more interesting aspect of this book, though,  is Catherine’s journey. I found her vapid at the beginning of the book. She doesn’t need to work because her father left her and her sister a pile of money. She owns the West Village house she lives in. She owns a little store called Leaf, which sells – tellingly – beautiful art cards, with nothing printed inside. Her one friend, Susan, is as superficial as she is. She has a strained relationship with her only sibling, Caroline. On the surface it’s a beautiful life, sure, but it’s style over substance. Her relationship with William forces Catherine to do some recalibrating, and that’s interesting to watch.

I enjoyed this book. It’s well-written, the pages turn themselves, and even if it’s less ‘thriller’ and more ‘drama’, it’s still entertaining.

The Visitors – Catherine Burns

Marion Zetland lives with her older brother, John, in a house that’s seen better days in a visitorscoastal town in Northern England. The siblings, now in their 50s,  have never been especially close, but now that both their parents have died, they have to rely on each other and their relationship is a sort of co-dependent nightmare. There is something very odd going on in their house, a house filled with the bric-a-brac of a childhood spent in some luxury (the Zetlands owned a textile mill), and now the domain of a couple hoarders.

Catherine Burns’s debut novel The Visitors focuses the story on Marion. She is mostly friendless, surrounds herself with stuffed animals, and spends her days watching sappy television movies, remembering events from her past, and imagining a future which she surely never had access to. She’d learned at a young age that she was plain, and spent most of her life living in John’s considerable shadow. He, after all, had gone off the Oxford, and she had limped through school, barely able to understand the most basic things.

When the novel opens, Marion has just been awakened by a scream, a sound that “flapped its wings against the inside of her skull.” She knows where the scream is coming from, and she even knows, although perhaps only subconsciously, why someone might be screaming inside her house, but she tamps down the feeling by calling forth her mother’s voice, which she knows would tell her that “John is doing the very best for them; you have to trust him – he is your brother and a very clever person.”

Slipping easily between the past and the present, we learn about the extremely dysfunctional Zetland family, about how Marion was bullied by her peers, and John’s own perverse personality, which is alluded to many times.  The only time we aren’t closely watching Marion, we are reading emails to someone called Adrian. The first time they appeared, I thought there’d been some sort of printing error, but it’ll all make sense in the end.

I really enjoyed The Visitors. I found Marion to be quite a sympathetic character, someone who clearly had been dealt a crappy hand in the family department, but was also dealing with some mental illness, too. Turns out, though, the lens through which the story is told is just a tad unreliable. Although this story is not told in the first person, we are really only privy to Marion’s thoughts, and there’s no question – she’s an odd duck.

Although I wasn’t 100% sold on the ending, I still recommend giving this one a go. It’s well written and you’ll totally keep turning the pages.