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.

 

 

 

He Said/She Said – Erin Kelly

It seems as though everyone is writing thrillers these days, but as someone who loves a hesaidgood page-turner, I know that they are not all created equal. This is the third book I’ve read by British writer Erin Kelly and although The Dark Rose is still my favourite,  and I have also read The Burning Air,  He Said/She Said is a terrific read.

Kit is an eclipse chaser. I know, it’s weird, but whatever. At an eclipse festival in Cornwall, his relatively new girlfriend, Laura, stumbles upon what looks like a sexual assault. The man, handsome and charming Jamie, denies it. The woman, Beth, insists that the crime has taken place. This chance meeting inserts Beth into their lives, binding the three of them together in a way that proves to be problematic for all parties.

The novel moves seamlessly between past and present. In the past, Kit and Laura are called as witnesses to the crime. In the future, they are married and appear to be in hiding. They’ve changed their names; they don’t have social media; they live quiet lives as they await the arrival of their twins.

Although Kit and Laura are clearly in love, it is also obvious that whatever happened in the past has taken a toll on their marriage and their day-to-day lives. Kit is about to head off to the Faroe Islands for another eclipse, and it is causing a great deal of anxiety because while “It seems unlikely that Beth will be on my ship [it is] not impossible that she will be somewhere on the Faroes.”

The reader, at least in the early part of the book, is left to wonder just why Kit and Laura are avoiding Beth. (More than avoiding really. Laura seems to be experiencing some serious PTSD and Kit has his own share of nerves.)  It’s only one of the reasons to turn the pages.

I think that what separates the wheat from the chaff in thrillers like this is character development and twists that you really can’t see coming. I thought I’d figured things out on more than one occasion, but I really hadn’t. When things really started to ramp up – and they did, by about the midway point – I just couldn’t stop reading. I was wholly invested in these characters, even though I wasn’t sure whom to trust. He said/ She Said for sure, and that’s one of the great things about this book, but there are other dynamics at play here. New relationships are tricky at the best of time, but what if at the root of things are secrets you just don’t know how to share?

If you haven’t yet discovered Erin Kelly, I can highly recommend her. Her novels are smart, well-written and definitely have a few surprises up their sleeves.

The Chalk Man – C.J. Tudor

I’d really been looking forward to reading C.J. Tudor’s thriller The Chalk Man  and I chalkfinally picked it up. The book was well-reviewed and was a finalist for Crime Writers’ Association’s Steel Dagger Award. What can go wrong, right?

There was definitely an IT vibe when I first started reading the novel. (Stephen King’s IT, I mean.) Adult Eddie is recounting the events of 1986, when he and his gang of friends, Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo and Nicky (who “didn’t have a nickname because she was a girl, even though she tried her best to pretend she wasn’t.”) used to hang out together in their small English town of Anderbury. They do normal kid stuff: ride their bikes, go to the fair, play in the woods, and try to stay out of way of Metal Mickey’s older brother Sean and his thug friends.

As an adult, Eddie lives in the house he grew up in and teaches at his former school. He’s single and lives with Chloe who is “youthful and cool and could pass for a teenager.” There’s nothing romantic between them; she’s just a boarder, but Eddie likes to think of her as a friend, too.

The Chalk Man  flashes back and forth between kid Eddie and adult Eddie and, at least in the beginning, that worked just fine for me. One of Tudor’s writerly quirks was to foreshadow events or drop hints at the end of chapters and I always wish writers didn’t tell us things like “I found out eventually. After the police came round to arrest him for attempted murder” before the fact. But oh well.

The title of the book refers to the chalk stick figures Eddie and his friends used to leave for each other on the sidewalk outside each other’s houses and in the playground. When Eddie was a kid, a series of these chalk figures lead him and his friends to a horrible discovery, and now in present day someone has sent him a letter with a single chalk figure. Bound to stir up old memories.

It doesn’t take very long for Tudor’s story to get convoluted and, for me at least, lose momentum. I raced through the first 50 pages, but then something happened. It lost some of its initial charm. Doesn’t mean it’s a dud, it just wasn’t a home run for me.

 

 

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.

Ruthless – Carolyn Lee Adams

2E11B418-C156-499C-B40A-C90F9802D4A7Seventeen-year-old Ruth Carver has a nickname on the show-riding circuit: Ruthless. She earned the name by being single-minded  when it comes to competitions, but it’s more than that. At the ranch, it’s “sink or swim” and Ruth lives by that motto. Ruth also understands that her success in the ring will benefit her parents’ struggling ranch. She’ll do whatever it takes to win, even if that means pushing other people away from her. That includes Caleb, the boy who loves her.

Carolyn Lee Adams’ YA novel Ruthless is a thrill-ride of a novel. It starts when Ruth wakes up in the back of a pickup truck, buried in a mound of manure, hay and shavings. She’s hurt and she soon realizes that she is in trouble, serious trouble.

The trouble comes in the shape of a man Ruth nicknames Wolfman.

He is tall and big, with a large, black beard and bushy eyebrows. He has strange hazel-orange eyes. He reminds me of a wolf.

Ruth remembers him from the ranch. “I kept seeing that wolf-looking guy, and that wolf-looking guy kept seeing me,” Ruth recalls. So “I told Dad to fire him.” Seems like Wolfman is the kind of guy to carry a grudge.

Wolfman aka Jerry Balls, is a smart and dogged  psychopath.  He punishes girls who he feels are deserving and Ruth can see that “He hates me in a way that I didn’t know was possible.”

So here is Ruth, trapped with a psycho in the middle of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Left alone when Wolfman is called in to work, she discovers that she is not his first victim, but she is determined that she will be his last. Her breathless escape from his cabin is just the start of 200+ pages of pulse-pounding reading.

If you’re wondering how Ruth is going to manage getting and staying away from Wolfman in the middle of nowhere, in terrain she doesn’t know, without supplies…well, that’s part of what makes Lee’s novel so compelling. Failing is not an option here and readers soon discover that Ruth is every bit as tenacious as Wolfman.

There is nothing graphic about this book, although the threat is imminent. Wolfman is also not a one-dimensional character; his story is told through a series of flashbacks. Doesn’t make him any more sympathetic, but you still get a glimpse into how he might have ended up the way he did.

We also see a bit of Ruth’s story from pre her abduction. One surprisingly prescient snippet recalls a conversation she has with her family. Her grandfather, once a sheriff, is offering advice should she ever be taken. He tells her “Don’t ever let them take you to a second location.” Her father offers “May God have mercy on the soul of the poor bastard who ever dared try.” Truer words.

Ruthless is terrific.