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.

 

 

 

The Silent Patient – Alex Michaelides

silentI guess I can see why The Silent Patient, Alex Michaelides’ debut novel, seemed to be on everyone’s radar over the past few months. It’s definitely one of those page-turners, the kind you stuff in your beach bag or read on the deck (which is where I read mine). But does it actually have a “twist that will make even the most seasoned suspense reader break out in a cold sweat” (Booklist)? Not so much.

Theo Faber became a psychotherapist because he was “fucked up.”

I was on a quest to help myself. I believe the same is true for most people who go into mental health. We are drawn to this profession because we are damaged – we study psychology to heal ourselves. Whether we are prepared to admit this or not is another question.

What is Theo’s childhood trauma, you might well ask? His father was/is an abusive dick; his mother a mostly mute witness to her husband’s shenanigans. So, from early on, readers know that Theo is damaged goods. Why he thought the psychiatry business was a good fit we’ll never know, but his choice of profession should give readers pause. Holy unreliable narrator, Batman!

Theo has taken a new job as a forensic psychotherapist at the Grove because Alicia Berenson is there. Alicia, an up and coming painter, killed her husband, Gabriel, a well-known photographer six years ago. She hasn’t spoken a word since. Theo is convinced that he can help her.

The Silent Patient follows Theo’s determined quest to free Alicia from her self-imposed silent prison. That would probably get pretty boring, though, so we’re also privy to Alicia’s journal entries. (How else would we get to know anything about what really happened?)

The problem with all of this, though, is there is nothing much to see in either case. Theo chases around London talking to the people from Alicia’s life: her cousin, Paul; her art dealer, Jean-Felix; her brother-in-law, Max. These conversations don’t really yield anything interesting; readers will have to rely on Alicia’s journal to fill in the blanks. (Her journal often quotes entire conversations verbatim, which is just odd. It’s a diary, not a court transcript.)

So, while The Silent Patient was certainly easy (easy really is the operative word here; the prose is straight-forward and unembellished) to read, did it add anything new to the thriller genre? Not really. The characters, virtually all of them,  are one-dimensional. I didn’t particularly like or care for any of them, meaning I didn’t really have any skin in the game. They seemed more like chess pieces Michaelides moved around the board to suit the plot. This is a story that is trying to be more than the sum of its parts, but its parts are just not that interesting.

 

 

 

What Has Become of You – Jan Elizabeth Watson

I love books featuring English teachers because I am an English teacher. Vera Lundy is whathasthe protagonist of Jan Elizabeth’s compelling thriller What Has Become of You. She’s pushing forty and has just accepted a maternity leave position at a private school in Dorset, Maine. Although Vera is well educated – she earned her master’s degree at Princeton – she is also somewhat awkward, and although being at the front of a classroom doesn’t come naturally to her she has “come to appreciate certain aspects of teaching.”

Jensen Willard is in Vera’s first period class, Autobiographical Writing: Personal Connections. Before Vera has even begun to teach, she receives an email from the precocious Jensen, asking her if it’s okay if she uses her own personal copy of Catcher in the Rye. This first correspondence sets in motion a peculiar relationship between teacher and student. In her journal, Jensen reveals very personal things, and Vera is both flattered to be on the receiving end of such honest reflection, but  also, as time goes on, troubled.

What Has Become of You mines the teacher/student dynamic to great effect. I think all  teachers have had students to whom we feel a special bond. Things get tricky for Vera, though, because Jensen is not your average kid. She’s odd, doesn’t fit in with the other students, is a bit of a loner.  She reminds Vera of herself.

She herself had not enjoyed being that age. On the contrary, those had easily been the worst years of her life. They had been the years of being ostracized, of being heartbroken, of being hunted down.

Vera sees something of a kindred spirit in Jensen, but then life goes off the rails for Vera. One night, walking home through the park, she stumbles upon the body of another one of her students. The ensuing investigation, and Jensen’s subsequent disappearance, puts Vera in the cross-hairs.

What Has Become of You is a well-written  – I hesitate to say ‘thriller’ so I am just going to say mystery. Our narrators are wholly unreliable, the plot is intricate and, although it mines somewhat familiar territory, it still manages to be surprising.

I would definitely recommend it.