Book Review (ARC): The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen

This is an elegant and gruesome beginning to what looks to be a promising series by Joanna Schaffhausen. Although the plot itself isn’t the most surprising, the prose is lovely – there are enough singular touches, character developments and imaginative turns-of-phrase to hit my thriller sweet spot.

Ellery Hathaway is a great heroine. Scarred both physically and emotionally from being the last “victim” / survivor of a particularly brutal serial killer, Ellery has changed her name, joined a small police force, adopted an adorable dog and is fighting to not only move on from her past, but learn from it. Three people have disappeared in the town where Ellery lives – and they’ve all vanished in the first week of July, year after year. It’s too much of a coincidence for the young police officer, but neither her superior nor her colleagues believe there’s enough to raise an investigation, so Ellery goes looking for help elsewhere.

That help comes in the form of Reed Markham, the FBI agent who found Ellery in the killer’s blood-streaked closet all those years ago. Washed up and battle-scarred, Reed is wary of getting involved, but helpless to stay away. When he arrives, it becomes clear that the vanishing season is only just beginning…

As I said above, this is lovely, atmospheric, tense and kinda gross, which I appreciate. Endless ickiness is one thing, and gets exhausting, but when authors are just merrily going along and then hit you with the truth of the matter (ie: farm tools), it’s like a sledgehammer to the gut, and it’s hugely effective. Schaffhausen is excellent at these kinds of moments, and it provides a real darkness that underpins the story.

Even when you’re marveling at how damn cute Ellery’s dog is, you can just feel that rotten river, flowing beneath, sucking all the light in its path.

By the way, her dog lives.

As all good dogs should.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

Book Review (ARC): Solving Cadence Moore by Gregory Sterner

Here’s the thing about Solving Cadence Moore – my belief is that people will either love it, or really hate it. I’m somewhere in the middle. While it wasn’t my favourite read this year, I think the author has talent and imagination, and I almost wish someone had cut this novel to pieces and told him to re-write it from the vast edits. Something tells me that Sterner has never heard Stephen King’s “kill your darlings” advice. The book is bloated in length, consistently repetitive, and with a huge amount of extraneous bracketed information that didn’t add anything to the tale.

Further, I don’t think the synopsis helps – it’s killer, and it’s very tough for the book to live up to its promise.

Sterner was clearly inspired by the true-crime story of Maura Murray, who disappeared over 15 years ago on a snowy road in New Hampshire, late at night, alone, with a broken-down car and booze in the backseat. Murray has never been found, and the theories are a tangled, wild mess. Did she run away to Canada? Did she have the colossal bad luck as to encounter a serial killer or rapist on that backwoods road? Was she fighting with her family? Did she die of exposure? Why did she lie to so many people before she vanished? And so on, and so on, for fifteen years. The wondering, the questions, the articles and books, and still at the centre, a person-shaped mark. A blot on the landscape. We still don’t know what happened to Maura, and that seems like an unlivable thing.

How could a person just disappear?

Charlie Marx asks that question on his podcast, over and over. Desperate to solve the mystery of Cadence Moore, a young lady who vanished years before, and emboldened by the recent interest in the case due to a blockbuster movie, Marx takes on the challenge to finally, 100%, tell the world what happened to her. On air.

If he’s successful: instant fame, fortune, notoriety. If he’s unsuccessful, it’s the end of the road. Notoriety of a different kind. And so Marx decides to do it. Try and solve Cadence. Much of the novel is written as if we’re listening to Marx on the radio. I’m not sure this lends itself well. There’s just so much vocalizing – so much information and chatter. When you spend your time reading text that mirrors how people actually talk, it’s amazing how much blather there is. It’s frankly exhausting, and I wished for an Editor as I’ve never wished for one before.

Still, the mystery of Cadence is intriguing. I wanted to know much more about her, though I think that’s the point. I also want to know so much about Maura Murray, because the very fact of her disappearance is what makes her fascinating. Because that person is not there to answer questions, the answers are tantalizingly out of reach. I think that’s what Sterner is getting at here – in some ways, we can only know Cadence through the recollections and memories of others. She will forever remain a question mark in the truest sense of the phrase – because she is no longer there to put a voice to her innermost thoughts, motivations or reasonings. Much as we cannot ask Maura why she was traveling with open alcohol and had lied about leaving school, we also cannot ask Cadence Moore about her dreams or aspirations or fears.

Those answers vanish along with the person, into the dark.

In the end, I think this book has a lot of promise, but as I said, a brutal edit would be needed before this lived up to its synopsis. This is Gregory Sterner’s debut novel, so I think there’s obviously so much room for him to grow as a writer – maybe he’ll come back to this someday and “kill his darlings”! Either way, I look forward to exploring his future work because I think the premise of this book is stellar, and the imaginative way its told bodes well for Sterner’s career.

Thank you to Kelsey from Book Publicity Services and to the author, for the complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an honest and unbiased review. I appreciate it!

Book Review (ARC): The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

If there’s one thing this book is, it’s atmospheric. There’s a certain feeling – of menace, of creeping heat, of the stink of the river. An undercurrent that threatens to pull everyone down with it.

Shifting between the past and the present, the book examines both the events leading up to an event as shocking as three sisters vanishing into the night, and the reverberations afterward, when people wonder, should we have known? Should we have foreseen? And for Tikka Molloy, there’s an extra element of responsibility and guilt, of shame and of longing. Because she and her sister were close with the Van Apfel girls, and knew more than they told. But would it have made a difference?

That’s the question. Because the girls are gone, and will always be gone. There’s no question of knowing anything, of coming to any kind of resolution, because the light has been snuffed out, and there’s only darkness, the kind of darkness that rivals a starless night.

In the end, I loved a lot about The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone. It’s examinations of girlhood. Of scorching summers with the murder of crows above, circling, circling. The cruelty of religion. Of obsession, and of righteousness. Of how loaded growing up as a girl can be, even when you’re barely old enough to have your period – how you can be the touch-point around which men hover, grasping and hungry.

There was a certain discomfort in that too. Because there was a victimization of Cordie in particular that seemed to spread its tentacles throughout the book. A feeling of the male gaze in the writing of her, this impossible girl-child, sexualized before her time, spinning and dancing in the glare of the headlights.

It didn’t bother me that there isn’t any real resolution. Missing children are rarely found. McLean offers explanations in the way of imaginative speculations, but we as readers know about as much as the town that was left behind. The Van Apfel girls took their secrets with them down to the river when they stepped, unwavering, furious, driven, as girls can be, into their future – and they didn’t need us, they didn’t need anyone holding them down, not any more.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

ARC Review: In Oceans Deep by Bill Streever

In some ways, this book reminds me of Her Name, Titanic by the immensely talented and brilliant Charles Pellegrino, which is one of my favourite explorations of the depths of the ocean and the depths of space. In it, Pellegrino marvels at how little we know about the earth’s water, what myserious creatures might live at the bottom, where it’s darker than pitch, darker than midnight.

With In Oceans Deep, Streever skillfully outlines the same thesis – that human beings have long focused upward, aiming for the stars, and ignored the wonderland of discovery that exists in the oceans, those uncharted territories and little touched blue deserts.

From the synopsis:

In Oceans Deep celebrates the daring pioneers who tested the limits of what the human body can endure under water: free divers able to reach 300 feet on a single breath; engineers and scientists who uncovered the secrets of decompression; teenagers who built their own diving gear from discarded boilers and garden hoses in the 1930s; saturation divers who lived under water for weeks at a time in the 1960s; and the trailblazing men who voluntarily breathed experimental gases at pressures sufficient to trigger insanity.

Tracing both the little-known history and exciting future of how we travel and study the depths, Streever’s captivating journey includes seventeenth-century leather-hulled submarines, their nuclear-powered descendants, a workshop where luxury submersibles are built for billionaire clients, and robots capable of roving unsupervised between continents, revolutionizing access to the ocean.

I knew little about free diving before beginning this book, and while the scientific methods behind it (which I think Streever spends a bit too much time on) are of little interest to me personally, the limits that people will push their bodies to was fascinating. These free divers “welcome” the convulsions of their diaphragms, fighting to breathe, spit out blood on the surface from lungs on the verge of crushing, and follow lines into the dark, anxious for that next personal record, or world-breaking depth. It’s dangerous, to be sure, but it’s also a testament to how far human beings will go in the name of exploration and the testing of the body.

With captivating prose and an obvious love for the ocean, Streever outlines the ways that we’ve studied the oceans from time immemorial, and the ways we’ve studied how far our bodies – and our machines – can go before they’re broken beneath the crushing weight of water.

It reminds me of mountaineers, tagging peaks and pushing beyond the realms of endurance, to breathe the thinnest air imaginable, while standing on the roofs of the world. It’s these kinds of people who find out what it means to be human, and find out what it means to discover. To stand or go where no one else has been, or where few have been, it must be the ultimate high. Whether they survive or not is almost beside the point – it’s what they come to know, sitting in a tiny submersible, touching the earth six miles down, in the Challenger Deep, where monsters may live.

Where their dreams live, and go on, to the next – the next depth, the next mountain, the next star. The next flicker in the unknown, reminding them what it means to be alive.

ARC Review: Their Little Secret by Mark Billingham (Tom Thorne Series)

Tom Thorne is a favourite of mine, and for good reason. He’s prickly, sardonic and frequently a tad rude, but he has a huge heart underneath it all and a keen sense of justice. Couple all of that with his love for Indian takeaways and you have a winner.

It’s hard to believe there have been sixteen books in this series, and it just keeps getting better and better. Mark Billingham has a real talent for writing twisty mysteries that nonetheless don’t all hinge on the final “shock” moment as so many do these days.

In Their Little Secret, Thorne is called to the scene of a suicide. A woman has jumped in front of a commuter train, and a homicide detective needs to sign to say there was nothing suspicious or untoward about the death. But something just seems off, and soon, Thorne is visiting the woman’s family and learning that she was recently swindled by a conman who made off with almost a hundred thousand pounds of her savings.

Angered but with his hands tied, Thorne hands it off to the Fraud department. All seems back to normal until a young man is found murdered on a beach – miles away – and the conman’s DNA is found beneath his fingernails…

Told from alternating perspectives, Their Little Secret lets us into the minds of not only Tom Thorne, but also Sarah, a deeply troubled young woman with a dark secret, and Conrad, the scam artist bilking women out of their savings, who becomes entangled with one person that he can’t quite control.

Put simply, I was riveted. This is one of Billingham’s best Thorne novels. The genius here is not being quite sure of anyone’s true motivations. The feeling of being on the edge of a avalanche that may tumble with the crack of a tree branch. Even the relationships between Thorne, Hendricks and Nicola Tanner seem balanced on the precipice, teetering on the brink of a fall. Their own kinship may be what ultimately destroys them.

That, they have in common with the killers. Their little secrets, threatening everything.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

Book Review (ARC): How the Dead Speak by Val McDermid

The first books in this brilliant series were so very imaginative, gruesome and brutal that they are hard to live up to. Truly, Tony Hill and Carol Jordan were a force to be reckoned with – in all of their messy realities, from Carol’s growing alcoholism to Tony’s impotence. Their relationship has gone through every tragedy that you could dream up, and more besides. So the question is now: can these books survive Tony being in prison for murder, and Carol out of the police force?

In many ways, How the Dead Speak feels like an ending to Tony and Carol, and a beginning to a new series about DI Paula MacIntyre. I wouldn’t blame McDermid if so – it’s difficult to write a series of police procedurals about non police officers, and it’s also hard to see how Carol Jordan could ever come back from professional disgrace after the events of Insidious Intent.

I wasn’t shy about disliking the latter novel. I think How the Dead Speak is better, but it still has the slightly disjointed and rushed quality that marred Insidious Intent. There are so many different viewpoints and threads, and I expected them to come together in a flourish that would knock my socks off, and instead… well, they didn’t. The book seemed to peter out, without many answers, moments of excitement, or narrative cohesion. It felt like many different books and the thing it felt like the least was a thriller or mystery novel.

Tony Hill is in prison and struggling to find his place. Carol Jordan has been ousted from ReMIT and begins to work with her old nemesis Bronwen Scott, seeking justice for people accused or found guilty for crimes they didn’t commit. A new version of ReMIT has been put in place, with DCI Rutherford in charge and the old crew – Alvin, Karim, Paula and Stacey – joined by newbies Steve and Sophie. They’re investigating the discovery of thirty skeletons found on the grounds of a former convent and girls’ home.

From the beginning, we know who the murderer is, and really – he or she is second fiddle to the interpersonal dramas. In the beginning of the Hill/Jordan novels, the thrills were the point. The relationships fed off the cases and were informed by the killer’s motivations – the characters seemed immersed in their work and the darkness surrounding them. But in this book, the mystery (or lack thereof) is a distant thing – not impacting anyone or acting as a catalyst for change. Instead, McDermid concentrates on Tony’s fumblings in jail, trying to find professional purpose and avoid being beaten up. She spends time with Carol attempting to recover from her PTSD through therapy. And there’s A LOT of time on Tony and Carol missing each other, longing for each other (etc etc) in a rather tiresome way.

It’s my opinion that these books would be greatly improved if Tony and Carol would accept their close friendship for what it is, and avoid a disastrous romance. There’s simply no way in hell these two could ever make it work as partners. Further, there’s no spark between them. They have come through the fire and on the other side, they’ve been burned clean of that electricity and old passion. Instead, they’re like brother and sister – they love each other, but I don’t believe they are in love with each other.

I have no problem with reading about committed, happy (or unhappy) couples. But I don’t believe that Tony and Carol have any chemistry left, and I think the series would be rejuvenated if they accepted their friendship. Perhaps then, the spark would return? Maybe? Maybe not? Either way, I’d love to see a return to the thrills and depravity of the earlier series, and less of Tony doodling Carol’s name in the margins of his notebook.

If the series is going to transition to be about DI MacIntyre, sign me up. She’s a worthy successor to Carol and Tony, and she feels very much at the beginning of the kind of darkness that the earlier books explored so well. If it continues with Tony and Carol, I’ll still read of course – McDermid is too talented a writer for me to ever avoid her books – but I think a change of course with their relationship and their professional lives is needed for that sense of magic and possibility that I used to feel about the series.

Book Review: Wilder Girls by Rory Power

“She’s never liked us much, not since she complained that there were no boys on the island, and Reese gave her the blankest look I’ve ever seen and said, “Plenty of girls, though.”

Girls are at the centre of this riveting and gruesome novel from Rory Power – girls in all of their mysteriousness and beauty, in their messy beginnings and messy middles. It’s no surprise why Wilder Girls is getting all the buzz – not only is the cover absolutely spectacular (I mean honestly, it sells itself), but the premise is beyond intriguing.

The island takes everything…

Told from the perspective of two “heroines”, Hetty & Byatt, and also featuring their best friend Reese, Wilder Girls is the story of Raxter School for Girls, set on a remote island off Maine, ensconced in wilderness, cut off from the rest of the world and shrouded in an unknown plague known only as “the Tox”.

It’s not clear what the Tox is, exactly, except that it causes horrific bodily injuries to its sufferers. There’s a fair amount of grisly body horror here, and it’s very well done – Power doesn’t mince words, and I found myself wincing, able to feel the agony and indignities of these girls. But there’s also a certain freedom that comes from their imprisonment – the girls cannot go anywhere beyond the walls of their school (the animals in the forest are infected too), and so, they have formed a series of small communities and societies within. Normal rules break down and their desires, needs, changing minds & bodies, become heightened by the confinement. But also set free, because what could be the consequences of a kiss between girls, when outside the fences, Death walks between the trees?

The only people who are allowed to leave Raxter are the “supply team”, who meet the Navy members that come over regularly to drop off food, water and medicine. When one of the assigned girls leaves the rota, Hetty is selected to fill her place, and the story truly kicks off.

A lot of Wilder Girls is brilliant. The sense of coming of age in chaos, it reminds me sharply of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. When high school truly is hell. Raxter is brimming with changing bodies and burgeoning hearts. The Tox is as inexplicable as female desire and puberty.

Where the story fails a bit however, is in the strangely melodramatic romance between Hetty and Reese. I was expecting more from two people who had already been through so much. It was extremely “insta love” and “insta breakup” that it almost felt like Power wasn’t comfortable exploring it in more detail. There’s an unneeded heterosexual romance as well (miss me with that in this kind of book). Further, the denouement was so sudden that I can’t help but feel there *must* be a sequel. If there isn’t, what the actual…?

Wilder Girls doesn’t quite live up to its terrifyingly beautiful cover, but it comes close. If there’s a sequel, I’ll be reading it.

Book Review (ARC): Missing Person by Sarah Lotz

By far my favourite book of Sarah Lotz’s is The White Road. Insanely atmospheric and creepy, it’s an examination of the thrill of discovery, the ghosts that walk beside us, and the quest for more – more thrills, more danger, more fame. When I read the blurb for Missing Person (which has changed significantly – obviously lots of edits were done, and the release date pushed back numerous times by my count), I expected to love it as much (if not more) than The White Road.

Not so, unfortunately. While this is a solid book, it didn’t feel particularly like a Sarah Lotz novel, nor did I quite get the point? By the end, nothing had happened. The stakes didn’t feel high. It wasn’t thrilling. It wasn’t scary. It’s a nice dive into the world of web sleuthing, with a diverse cast of characters, and even a peek into the mind of a killer, but again – I didn’t find it at all frightening.

It begins with a young Irishman named Shaun Ryan, discovering that his uncle – believed long dead – actually left Ireland for New York City decades before. Stuck in a small village with a dead-end job and a family he dislikes, Shaun is intrigued by the idea that his uncle could still be alive. Utilizing the Internet, he posts Teddy’s photo on forums, seeking answers as to his whereabouts. A group of web sleuths recognize the photo – they believe it resembles a composite done for the victim of a brutal murder – a victim known as “the boy in the dress”.

What follows is a lot of back-and-forth, interspersed with web chats, WhatsApp messages, forum postings, and very little action. Shaun and the web sleuths from “Missing Linc” attempt to piece together Teddy’s last movements, and track down vanished evidence from the botched police investigation. The drama between the “sleuths” isn’t particularly compelling, but I did find them to be a likable bunch, all with their own reasons for caring so much about the boy in the dress.

Generally, the novel is well-written and I really did like the subject matter. But I should have felt that the stakes were high, and that the tension was going to be raised to a fever pitch. I should have felt terrified for the sleuths with a killer in their midst. I should have been shocked and laid bare by the ending. Instead, I had to wonder what it was all for?

Again, Sarah Lotz has terrified me in the past. There are passages in The White Road that had me putting down my Kindle, too anxious to continue. It isn’t that Missing Person is a bad book. It’s that it’s marketed as a thriller, and it’s not even remotely in that category.

For the record, my favourite character was Daphne the dog.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

Book Review (ARC): Make it Scream, Make it Burn by Leslie Jamison

Searingly honest and often uncomfortably intimate, this collection of non-fiction stories or “essays”, are elevated not only by the assured nature of Leslie Jamison’s writing, but also by how emotionally invested she becomes with her subjects.

In non-fiction, the trend is to be “once removed” from what you’re writing about, but not so here. Jamison is fully immersed in the telling. She’s the shadow of the photographer in every photo, her own personality, longings, obsessions and addictions seeping through, often with incredible results.

Though not every piece was as compelling as my favourites (52 Blue, We Tell Ourselves Stories in Order to Live Again, Daughter of a Ghost, Museum of Broken Hearts), most – if not all – were blessed with Jamison’s rawness, her propensity for truth-telling, and her unflinching looks in the mirror. If her subjects are lonely or damaged or fraught with unseen hurts, well then, so is she. She’ll unwrap herself as surely as she unwraps them. This serves her better in stories where she can find a way in – in some, she still seems on the outside, trying to find a crack in the window.

In the best tales – mentioned above – there is a ribbon of understanding. Jamison’s empathy and desperate need to connect are beacons throughout the book – evident in one story about children who remember past lives. Where most journalists were dismissive of the claims, Jamison sought to cast aside her own belief system, opinions, or any other attitude that might reveal she was biased or had pre-conceived ideas – to do so, she felt, would be foolish and quick to judge:

It was more that I felt emotionally, spiritually and intellectually allergic to a certain disdainful tone that implied it knew better, that it understood what was possible and what wasn’t. It seemed arrogant to assume I understood much about consciousness itself – what it was, where it came from, or where it went once we were done with it.

Chased by her own demons – alcoholism, abandonment, guilt – Jamison tackles her subjects gently, peeling aside their armours and getting to the bloody truths with an unsparing eye and the brutality, the beauty, of language. Even as she shines the flashlight through the darkness, she seems to be saying, I can see you. You’re not alone. I know your story. I want to know your story.

Come here, I will tell of it.

Thank you to NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review. I appreciate it!

Book Review (ARC): Anything For You by Saul Black

A smart and robust thriller from Saul Black, Anything For You is the third novel in his Valerie Hart series. My favourite of these – by far – is his debut, The Killing Lessons, which was creepy, atmospheric and crazy good at building tension.

In Anything For You, Valerie is investigating what, at first glance, is your standard issue home invasion. High flying attorney Adam Grant is found – stabbed and bludgeoned in his bed. On the floor next to him is his wife, Rachel, clinging to life after a stab wound to the chest. Fingerprints found all over the scene belong to convicted felon, Dwight Jenner, who’s disappeared in the bloody aftermath.

Through her search for Jenner, Valerie turns up photos and sightings of his mysterious girlfriend, blonde and beautiful Sophia, a known prostitute and seeming accessory to murder. Black flips back and forth between Sophia and Valerie’s perspectives, giving us glimpses of both women – on dark but opposite paths.

Though I appreciate Black’s gritty and sensual writing, I think there is a certain element to his portrayal of Valerie that just doesn’t ring true. Constantly thinking about and fantasizing about sex, one step away from flinging herself on most men she meets – Valerie reads to me, as a male fantasy of what men hope women are truly like. Her thoughts are stereo-typically masculine, and she’s also annoyingly aware of her own beauty, and seems to measure other women against it. Ick.

That aside, Black’s portrayal of Valerie’s alcohol consumption – and the refreshing change to see an author building a portrait of someone who chooses moderation rather than abstinence – is very well done. Valerie is always hovering on the avalanche of bad decisions, just a whisper away from plunging her life into chaos. While I think her character could use a female editor, I still enjoy reading about her.

The book is an electrifying race to find out whodunit, and there is a wham-bam shocker that hit me like a punch. Wow. Saul Black is an extremely talented author, and I look forward to more of Valerie Hart – or perhaps a male detective? I’d love to see Black conquer his own gender in that way – just my opinion, but I think his writing style would produce a fantastic male lead.