The Quiet Child – John Burley

20170423-QUIET-CHILD-cover-rev-11-18-16John Burley’s novel The Quiet Child asks some compelling questions: ‘How far would you go to protect the people you love?’ chief among them.

It’s 1954 in Cottonwood, California and high school Science teacher Michael McCray and his wife Kate had it all. Had being the operative word. Things have been different for them for a while now, ever since their younger son Danny was born six years ago. That’s when Kate started to get sick; now she is practically bedridden. The people of their small town started to pull away from the McCrays because it seemed that coming into close contact with them meant that you, too, would become ill and maybe even die. Danny is an odd child, mostly because he is silent. He doesn’t say a word. Sean, 10, is protective of his younger brother and that’s part of the reason both boys are kidnapped outside of a convenience store on the night their dad takes them for ice cream.

The man in the tan jacket crossing the street, heading in the direction of the parking lot. Danny in the back seat of the car, gazing out the window as he waited for them to return. The engine starting. The spin of tires on gravel. And Sean, standing there less than a minute ago. But now…

After the boys go missing, readers follow local Sherriff Jim Kent and two detectives from Shasta County as they try to piece together what happened and where the boys might be. Don’t forget – it’s the early 50s and sussing out what happened is a lot more time consuming and difficult without the aid of technology.

Kate insists that Michael do “whatever it takes” to bring back  her sons and so Michael sets off on his own. It takes a little bit before the police figure out that the kidnapper has made contact with Michael, but soon they are hot on the trail.

The Quiet Child is certainly a page-turner; I read it in a couple of sittings. Burley provides just the right amount of backstory about the key players so that we care about them and minor characters are fleshed out so that their fate is also important to us.

The interesting thing about this book is that it works on a bunch of different levels. Partly it’s a thriller: will Michael find his sons? Will they be alive? Will everyone survive? Partly it’s sort of supernatural, but I don’t think that’s even the right word. Why is Kate sick? Why is Michael starting to experience tremors in his arm? Are people right to be suspicious of Danny? Is he really able to make people ill? And then, the book is strangely philosophical. Do we really have the right to make decisions that affect the lives of others if they benefit the greater good?

Even if you think you know where The Quiet Child is heading, I suspect you’ll be surprised and I guarantee you’ll be thinking about this book for a while after you’ve read the last page.

What She Left Behind – Tracy Bilen

13040715Sara’s mom finally has a plan to get the two of them out of Dodge – okay, they don’t actually live in Dodge, they live in Scottsfield, a town so small it doesn’t even have traffic lights. Life with Sara’s dad, Ray, an ex-cop cum hardware store owner, has passed the point of impossible and taken a right turn at scary. He’s abusive and a tad on the crazy side considering he still thinks his son, Matt, lives at home. Matt’s dead.

This is what we know at the beginning of Tracy Bilen’s YA novel What She Left Behind. Getting away is a good plan, Sara thinks, until her mother fails to pick her up at the appointed time and place. When she gets home from school her father tells her that her mother was called away on a last minute training course, but every time Sara tries to call her cell it goes straight to voice mail and the duffle bag she’s packed and stowed under her bed, well, that’s been unpacked and everything returned to its place.

Sara was always the invisible one in the family. Her mother and brother took the brunt of Ray’s abuse. Now all eyes are on Sara and she’s desperate to find out what’s happened to her mother and to avoid her father’s ire.

Two boys come to her aid: Zach, her brother’s best friend and Alex Maloy, hot boy from school. Zach knows Sara’s family history; Alex is new on the scene and seems to be interested in Sara, for real, and although Sara likes Alex she also knows there’s no point in pursuing anything with him since she and her mom are leaving…just as soon as her mom returns. He’s cute, though.

I read What She Left Behind in one sitting. Seriously. The plot clicks along at a good clip; Sara is likeable and sympathetic. Ray is one brick short of a chimney. Alex is too-good-to-be-true, but don’t you kinda want that for the girl whose life is pretty much shit.

I’d have no trouble recommending this book to my students.

The Widow – Fiona Barton

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Book of You – Claire Kendal

You know how sometimes you start a book and you just can’t put it down – that’s what happened when I started reading Claire Kendal’s debut novel The Book of You. I mean, it’s not an original story – woman sleeps with guy after a bad break up and guy turns out to be a psychopathic stalker – but Kendal’s novel had an extra layer of creep, plus some interesting things to say about victim-blaming.

Thirty-eight-year-old Clarissa works as an administrator at the university in Bath. Her book of youaffair with Henry, a professor, has recently ended. Rafe also works at the university and has just published a new book on fairy tales and it is at his book launch that Clarissa drinks too much. She hadn’t really wanted to go, but he’d sent her three invitations. Hello, alarm bells.

“It is the night that I make the very big mistake of sleeping with you,” she writes in her journal. She has decided to follow the advice from the literature on stalkers and document everything. Clarissa knows she has to build a case before she can even consider going to the police.

I am trying to piece it all together. I am trying to fill in the gaps. I am trying to recollect the things you did before this morning, when I started to record it all. I don’t want to miss out a single bit of evidence – I can’t afford to. But doing this forces me to relive it. Doing this keeps you with me, which is exactly where I don’t want to be.

Everything about Rafe is skin-crawlingly-creepy.

“It makes me want to scream, the way you say my name all the time,” Clarissa writes. And Rafe has plenty of opportunities to say it. He is everywhere: outside her apartment, lurking at train stations, waiting for her outside the court room where she is on jury duty. He sends her things: chocolates, notes, flowers. He calls and texts her dozens of times. He rallies her friends against her, isolates her further. He makes Clarissa question her own sanity.

If there is a bright spot in Clarissa’s day, it is the time she spends in court, listening to the rather horrific details of a violent drug-related rape. It is here where she meets fellow-juror, Robert, a firefighter who recently lost his wife. As she and Robert become closer, Rafe becomes more aggressive.

The Book of You is an edge-of-your-seat thriller which also happens to be well-written. Clarissa refuses to let herself be a victim, but she is human and doesn’t always make the right choices. I never once thought “What?! Don’t do that!” though – which is certainly due to Kendal’s skill.

It’s a bit graphic, so if that’s not your thing perhaps this isn’t the book for you. However, I couldn’t put it down and highly recommend it.



Descent – Tim Johnston

descent_thumbI love it when a book lives up to its hype…and if you believed the accolades plastering the back cover and the first three pages of Tim Johnston’s novel Descent, you’d certainly be expecting great things. The Washington Post said “Read this astonishing novel. The magic of his prose equals the horror of Johnston’s story.” Esquire called it “Outstanding” adding that “the days when you had to choose between a great story and a great piece of writing” are “gone.”

I don’t even know how this book came to be on my radar – I just know that I had a picture of it on my phone and a couple weekends ago I was pleased to discover that Indigo had topped up my Plum Points and I had $100 to spend…but only that weekend to spend it. So, I flipped through the pictures of covers and chose five, Descent being one of them. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the book on Information Morning and decided that since I had, I should probably read it. Once I started, I couldn’t stop.

The Courtlands are spending a little family time in the Rocky Mountains – a holiday before Caitlin, 18, heads off for her first semester of college. Her mom and dad, Angela and Grant, are clearly in crisis and then there’s Sean, Caitlin’s 15-year-old brother.

Caitlin is a runner and on the morning the story opens, she and her brother are heading up a mountain trail – Caitlin on her feet, Sean on his bike. Johnston meanders up the mountain with the pair as they bicker and share confidences. Then the unthinkable happens: Sean is hit by a jeep

…it came, monstering through the trees at an incredible speed, crushing deadfall, the whip and scream of branches dragged on sheet metal and then the suddenly unobstructed roar that made her wrap her head in her arms, the sound of tires locking and skidding and the thing slamming into what sounded like the sad tin post of a stop sign and then the meaty whump and the woof of air which was in fact the boy’s airborne body coming to a stop against the trunk of a tree.

When Grant and Angela get a call from the local police, they learn Sean’s been badly injured;  Caitlin is missing.

Fast forward a year or so. Grant has moved to the area and is living on the property owned by the local sheriff’s father, Emmet. Sean is on the road, driving from place to place picking up odd jobs. Angela is living with her sister when she isn’t hospitalized for depression/mental health issues. Caitlin’s disappearance has fractured the Courtland family.  It’s mostly the men that Johnston spends time with, allowing the reader a glimpse into their own personal hells: the father who can’t and won’t give up hope that Caitlin will be found and the son who can’t forget what happened that morning on the mountain.

The characters in Descent are trying to get on with it, but their personal pain is palpable. Grant works around Emmet’s property, sometimes pausing to “stare into the hills beyond the ranch, up into the climbing green mountains.” He hears his daughter’s voice and  “take[s] his skull in his hands and clench[es] his teeth until he [feels] the roots giving way.”

As for Sean, he is closed off from the world. In one particularly horrific scene, he puts himself in harm’s way in an effort to save a young girl – perhaps in an effort to atone for the ultimate crime of not being able to save his sister. It’s not the only time he does something selfless, albeit, foolish.  I just wanted to hug him.

We do spend less time with Angela, but that doesn’t mean that we know less about her. She moves through her much diminished world like a whisper. Only a parent who has suffered the loss of a child could truly understand Angela’s debilitating sadness.

The girls’ heartbeat still played in her arms. In her chest. She remembered the hour, the minute, she was born: precious small head, the known, perfect-formed weight of it. All her fears of motherhood – of unreadiness, of unfitness– vanishing at the sight of that plum-colored face mewling in outrage. My child, my life.

Secondary characters, Emmet’s  black-sheep son, Billy, for example, are equally well-drawn. Billy arrives back in town, much to the chagrin of his father and older brother, and swaggers his way into everyone’s bad graces. But even Billy is allowed his shades of gray – there are no stock characters here.

Into these complicated interior lives, Johnston deftly weaves the mystery of Caitlin’s disappearance. She is not a footnote, trust me. The story of her disappearance is unraveled with excruciating care and her story is definitely one of the things that will speed your journey through this book.

Descent is fantastic on every level and I highly recommend it.



Pulse Pounding Thrillers

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

 Intensity – Dean Koontz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

shininggirlsFull disclosure: I like Criminal Minds. And no, it’s not just because FBI profiler Derek Morgan is sometimes shirtless and also often kicks down doors or flies through the air to take down the perps. I have to admit that I have a sick fascination with serial killers and their creepy-crawly minds. So Lauren Beukes novel The Shining Girls  seemed like it might totally be up my dark alley (with the crazy person waiting at the end in the shadows.) This book was a recent purchase, never a guarantee that I am going to read it imminently, but  – as it turns out – I did read it in short order. Was it a wholly satisfying experience? Um, no. However, I was still turning the pages way past my bedtime last night, so that’s saying something.

Harper Curtis is a nondescript sort of guy, remarkable only for his limp. Oh, plus he’s a time-traveling serial killer. Why he is able to skip through time is never really explained, but how is a different story. There’s this House (yes, with a capital ‘H’) and Harper has the key.

Kirby Mazrachi is almost seven when she meets Harper. Harper doesn’t like the “unpredictability of children” but he assures Kirby that he will be back for her. He tells her:

I’ll see you when you’re all grown up. Look out for me, okay, sweetheart? I’ll come back for you.

Harper does come back for Kirby; he comes back for all his “shining girls.” Beukes gives us just enough of their stories to make us care about their awful, violent deaths. One by one, he picks them off, leaving mementos of another time with their ruined bodies.

Harper doesn’t count on Kirby surviving, but she does. Now,  years after her attempted murder, she’s determined to find the man who almost did her in. The thing is, since he’s able to move through time, he’s almost impossible to catch.

The Shining Girls might be the sort of book that readers give up on because it’s too confusing or they don’t buy the time travel element of it. I was happy to go along for the ride, especially for the first three-quarters of the book or so. Harper wasn’t especially scary – we don’t really learn anything about him until about two-thirds of the way through the book – he’s pretty much a garden variety psychopath with a penchant for knives and intestines. What really kept me turning the pages was Kirby. She’s smart and resilient and determined. I liked her and I wanted her to be safe.

Something happened, though, near the end of the book. The carefully sustained tension was somehow deflated. Kirby became that girl. You know, the one who chases after the killer all on her own and then goes into the House all on her own…without a weapon. It was more than that, though. (Seriously, I knew she had to chase after Harper and go into the house – what kind of ending would we have had if she hadn’t?)  I think it was just that when all the pieces of Beukus’ intricate jigsaw puzzle were exposed it somehow seemed silly.

Time heals all wounds. Wounds clot, eventually. The seams knit together.

You had me, Ms. Beukes, until the very end. But even still – I’d highly recommend this book as  genre-bending, well-written, page-turning fun. (If serial killers are your thing, that is.)