Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day (@LoriRaderDay)

Recently, I was wandering through the bug room at a museum. In the back corner, there was a wall of butterfly boxes. I turned to my friend and said, ‘If I’d grown up somewhere different, I wonder if I would have known that there were jobs like this. If I’d lived in a different town, I think my life might have taken an entirely different path.” And for a brief moment, I resented the life that brought me to this place where I wasn’t tacking these beautiful bugs in boxes. Then I got over it, because I was out with people I wouldn’t know on that life path. But the characters in Rader-Day’s “Little Pretty Things” are stuck in this cycle of life resentment. Especially Juliet. A once promising track star, she now cleans rooms in a rundown motel off the interstate. Her life is not sunshine and roses.

Small towns are… well, if you’ve never lived in one, you can’t really know. Literally. It is inexplicable to people who grew up in cities. I equate it to working in an office. You basically know everyone, and you have to be careful what you say where, cause information will always get back to someone it’s not supposed to. But in the small town scenario, there’s no going home. Home is just more people that you know. There’s no anonymous trip to the store. You buy tampons, you’re buying them from someone in your class, or the child of someone you work with, or the woman who’s been working behind that counter longer than you’ve been alive. If you’re trying to get pregnant (which everyone already knows), the town will soon know that it didn’t happen this month. If you don’t want people to know you’re having sex, you leave town to buy condoms. It’s a strange microcosm of awfulness. But for some people, small town life is exactly what they want. They like having the lack of anonymity. They like knowing their neighbours. They find security in it. Continue reading

Broken Harbour by Tana French

I am on the Tana French soap box. Like standing on the corner preaching at people soap box – French is fabulous. I adore her writing and her style. Broken Harbour is exceptional (can I just say how happy I am to be able to spell harbour properly and not drop the U). It is my favourite of the five. It is exactly what I am looking for in a book. That being said, I would not necessarily recommend her books to people who are fans of traditional crime fiction. She’s not about the plot twist. In fact, her perpetrators are often fairly easy to figure out. If you don’t know early on, when the reveal happens, it just makes sense. But that writing choice serves the books rather than hinders them. And this sentiment is exceptionally true in Broken Harbour. By not concentrating on the who-dun-it part, you get to focus on the why they did it part. As with French’s other novels, this is a psychological review more than a mystery. Madness is a central focus in the novel. Madness brought on by mental illness, genetics, and social pressure.

As always, French brings back a character from one of her previous novels. In BH we’re reintroduced to Scorcher Kennedy, whom we previously met in a small role in Faithful Place. People always says you don’t have to read her books in order. That they aren’t a real series. And that’s kind of true. The characters change from book to book. But the central character in one book is typically part of one of the previous books. Technically, you don’t need to read Faithful Place to read this novel, but I think Kennedy’s character makes more sense if you understand how his career was impacted by the events of that story (just read things in order. They’re written that way for a reason.) In that novel, Kennedy was introduced to us by the cantankerous Frank as kind of a socially-acceptable, stick in the mud, ass who was an excellent, driven cop. And honestly, I don’t think Frank was wrong. Scorcher is going to be one of those characters that people will relate to or they won’t. It all depends on the way you see the world – which is kind of the entire pint of the book. Outwardly, Kennedy is exactly what he is supposed to be. Even inwardly, this is what he is. If he starts to stray from the socially acceptable lifestyle, he is so critical of himself. It is crucial to Scorcher that he embodies the exceptionally normal and successful, especially since he was basically fucked over by the events of Faithful Place. Now he’s trying to get back on track and prove he’s still what everyone thought he was before. To become the image of normalcy again. To prove that he is the guy he’s always shown everyone.

Scorcher’s desire to be normal is driven by his childhood. A mother who struggled with a mental illness in a time when you did not discuss such things publically. It was better for the neighbours to think that their father beat their mother, than to let people know she was struggling. Struggling so much that it eventually drove her to commit suicide on a family vacation. She killed herself in the only place where Kennedy ever felt happy. Where his mother was happy. Where the family didn’t struggle. Where everything was allowed to just relax and breathe for a little while before they returned to faking it. Until the night she picked up the youngest sister and walks into the water. Dina survives, found burrowed in the reeds aside the water, but she’s never the same. To her family, she was a normal, imaginative little girl before the incident. Afterwards, she started acting differently. At first, her responses could probably be attributed to a child suffering from PTSD, but there’s more to it than that. There always was. Dina knew it and I think their mother did to. I think she saw herself in Dina. Saw that Dina was starting to suffer from the same ailments as her. After the suicide, Dina can no longer hide her auditory hallucinations. Continue reading

Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberley McCreight

I hate the need to market a book by comparing it to recent mass market successes. In this case, I’m talking about the incessant need to compare crime/thriller novels with ‘unconventional’ female leads to Gone Girl. I loved Gone Girl. I’m not looking for the next Gone Girl. And if I’m looking for something with a similar feel, I’m probably going to read a Flynn novel, because it’s her style that makes me love her books. Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight is nothing like that novel. The only thing they have in common is a female lead. That is it. Zero other things.

I came across Reconstructing Amelia on a list of essential crime novels, or something like that. It might have been a Buzzfeed list. Most of the novels held no interest for me, but this one (and another I haven’t read yet) stuck out because of the premise. In this novel, McCreight tells us the story of a mother trying to figure out if her daughter actually committed suicide by retracing Amelia’s life. Fascinating, right? The story has potential, but the execution failed.

This could have been a story about relationships between mothers and daughters. About how no one really ever totally knows another person, even their child. There are enough mother/daughter relationships mentioned that the comparisons are readily available. It should have been a story of discovery with a mystery subplot. Instead, it turned out to be the story of two perfectly perfect people and the one dimensional ‘troubles’ in their lives. Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not a terrible read. I’d put it on the lower side of average. It could have been so much better. I was expecting more. After I found it on that list, I did my usual Goodread perusal and there were some really good responses. From reviewers I generally consider well opinioned. People talked about its unputdownableness. About being brought to tears by the moving relationship between mother and daughter. Genre spanning storytelling. The emotional depth. It was exactly what I was looking for… I should have known.

Reclaiming Amelia ran into a problem that many dual narrative novels encounter – one of the stories is significantly more believable/enjoyable than the other. If you haven’t read the book, stop reading here or spoil yourself silly. The choice is yours. Continue reading

Freaks Like Us by Susan Vaught (@susan_vaught)

One of the most infuriating tropes in YA literature, or crime fiction in general really, is the protagonist knowing a giant secret and deciding that they will do a better job investigating than the police. Now, I’m not going to say I never read these books. Hell, I’ve written them. I even understand why this exists, but it gets overused and often quite badly. You spend most of the book yelling at the characters to get their heads out of their asses and talk to the cops. But in Freaks Like Us, Vaught is able to tell this exact type of story without the reader ever really feeling that way. You actually understand why our protagonist never tells the police what he knows.

Jason (Freak), I’m going to call the kids by their real names instead of their nicknames, is a high school student with two best friends – one boy, one girl. They’ve been friends most of their lives. They live close together. They ride the same bus. They take the same classes. They’re members of the alphabet kids – each with their own classification. Each with its own symptoms and behaviours. Derrick has severe ADD/ADHD. Jason is schizophrenic. Sunshine is selectively mute. I didn’t even know that was a thing until I read the book, but I was explaining the premise to a friend who teaches these types of classes and she assured me it absolutely is.

Derrick is always moving, always talking, always producing energy. Even though he is a part of the trio, he’s sort of a background character. He’s their friend, but the big relationship here is Jason and Sunshine. These kids are pretty self-aware. They know what they have. They know what happens when they don’t control it. They know how other people feel about them. They even have their own hierarchy of disorders within their class – even if no one outside their classes recognizes it. Kids prone to violence are stuck in with kids who aren’t. It’s just the way it is. One alphabet is the same as another in the view of the school. Let’s blame this on the fact that schools are treated more like daycares than centres of learning and often have to do whatever they can to make their budgets work. School budgets… it isn’t the point of this novel, but (and there are spoilers from this point on, accept it) they are part of the plot. The lack of funding leads to a convicted child sex offender being put in charge of a group of minors. Unacceptable! Continue reading

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (@PaulaHWrites)

Super hyped books are a double edged sword – you get to hear about a book that is potentially awesome that you may not have otherwise discovered – yay – but you also have to keep your expectations in check. Hype can kill a book you might otherwise have really enjoyed – boo. Fortunately, The Girl on the Train is one of those books that was hyped and enjoyable. Is it a five star read? No. But it’s definitely worth reading if you’re looking for something not too taxing. It’s marketed as a mystery, but like a lot of the books I like, the mystery is just what gets us the story. As someone I know described it – the mystery is the tortilla chip that gets you the chunky salsa of the story. The mystery in this novel – a missing woman – is the backdrop of a story that is really about the importance of self-reliance. Also, that missing woman is the only similarity it has to Gone Girl. I don’t know why people keep comparing these two books. Liking one in no way means you’ll like the other. It’s like saying pot is the same as crack. Sure, they’re both drugs, but that’s where the similarities end. Gone Girl is way darker than The Girl on the Train.

Here’s what we’ve got in this novel (and yes, this is where the spoilers begin) – on a daily commute to work, a woman watches the same houses go by every day. And in those houses, she often sees the same people. So she makes up stories about them in order to fill the time. This is something every commuter can relate to. I take the same train to work every day and every day I look to see if the house I covet has sold. I try to figure out how the graffiti gets onto the bridge legs. I check if the John Travolta cut out in the window of the dilapidated house had been joined by any others. Until the day we chugged past and the house with the cut out was gone. Just gone. Totally levelled. It threw me – for a couple days. First day I was sure I had just been distracted and missed the house. So I checked the next day and the next and nope, there was a hole in the ground where the house used to be. So I sort of get what was happening with Rachel. Something she counted on had changed. Not necessarily something important, but something steady.

There are some differences between her and I though. Unlike Rachel, I was actually going to work, not just riding the train to fake out my roommate. Also, I’m not a raging alcoholic. And the things I pay attention to require no police intervention. And I’m not drawn to these people as a weird connection to my former life. Rachel is watching this neighbourhood so closely because it’s where she used to live. When she had a happy marriage and potential. Before Anna moved in and destroyed everything. So, she creates this life for the people she would later learn were Megan and Scott. The stories of these three woman weave together to create the fabric of the novel. Their povs are used interchangeably throughout the novel – and on the audiobook they have three different narrators. It’s a style I don’t typically love, but it worked well in this book. Continue reading