fiction · thriller

Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

I have a love-hate relationship with missing child stories. On one hand, they’re incredibly hard to read. How do you even survive any of that? On the other hand, it’s like a bruise I can’t stop poking at (I blame growing up with Soul Asylum’s Runaway Train blaring on MTV, the pictures of missing children and teenagers running on a loop on the screen every few hours during my early teen years). The Nowhere Child by Christian White (Affirm Press, 2018) ended up on my list as soon as I learned about it; a missing child, a multi-continental story, a weird religious group…yup, I was in.

A strange man shows up in Kim Leamy’s Australian town one day, making claims that she’s not who she thinks she is: she’s actually Sammy Went, who went missing from a small Kentucky town almost thirty years ago. At first, Kim finds his story ridiculous (her late mother, a kidnapper? Hardly)…but then things start to add up, and her stepfather very obviously knows more than he’s saying. When the man reveals himself to be Kim’s biological brother, she knows she needs to figure this all out, so it’s off to America to learn the truth.

The Went family already had deep cracks by the time Sammy was born; father Jack had tried to bury his attraction to men, but that wasn’t working out so well; mother Molly’s fierce devotion to the snake-handling church Jack grew up in and has since abandoned is dividing everyone in the family and pushing Jack even further away. When two-year-old Sammy goes missing, long-hidden secrets come to light, but it’ll take decades before the truth really comes out.

This is a really solid thriller, one that involves a dangerous cult whose devotion to remaining ‘other’ costs lives. Complicating everything are Jack’s sexuality in a time and place that refuses to understand it and thus his need to keep it hidden, teenager Emma’s difficulty with her parents, and, in the current-day sections of the narrative, Kim’s piece-by-piece uncovering of the reality of who she is and how small-town secrets conspired to keep the truth of Sammy’s disappearance under wraps for so long.

The book goes back and forth in time, switching from third person narration by various characters, to first person narration by Kim. This keeps the story moving, but it also serves well to keep the reader on edge, guessing about what really happened, who was really involved, and why. I’m usually pretty bad at figuring out whodunit, but I had this one kinda pegged early on, though the why of it all wasn’t fully fleshed out in my mind until the full explanation appeared in the book. I enjoyed following the characters on their journeys. There are some surprises here, but all in all, this was a good, solid, enjoyable read.

Visit Christian White’s website here.

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Book Review: It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell

My mom sometimes brings me books.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate it. I do. It’s very sweet and thoughtful of her, and I love that she thinks of me. But there’s not a ton of overlap in my mom’s and my taste in books. I’m not sure she’s ever read a nonfiction book as an adult, and she loves Nicholas Sparks way more than I think is healthy, but I still always read the things she brings me (eventually!) even if they’re not exactly my taste. Because that’s what daughters who love their moms do. 😊 And that’s how I ended up with a copy of It’s Always the Husband by Michele Campbell (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). It’s been sitting on my shelf for about two years, and I’m trying to read from that shelf in particular in order to make room to display some of my Jewish books. Thrillers aren’t necessarily my favorite genre, but I don’t mind them now and then, and this was okay.

The story features three friends who couldn’t possibly be more different, all starting out at one of the most prestigious colleges in the country. There’s Aubrey, who’s had a rough life and who’s looking for her time at Carlisle College to provide her with a better future; Jenny, a townie, cynical yet ambitious; and Kate, a ne’er-do-well daughter of privilege, for whom things always seem to work out, no matter how deep she gets into the muck. The three are assigned to room together; Aubrey’s naïve enough to buy whatever anyone is selling, but Jenny’s not as easily pulled into Kate’s vortex as everyone else around her seems to be. She still gets caught up in it, though, as Aubrey and Kate begin to spiral into some harmful behavior, and before they know it, a boy lies dead in the river, and another is left barely clinging to life, with no memory of what happened. All three girls were involved; no one is talking, and the cover-up, orchestrated by Kate’s influential father, is swift and all-encompassing.

Twenty years later, they’re all back in town again, back together, and suddenly there’s yet another body washed up in the river. Who is this woman? Who killed her? Long-buried secrets might unravel everyone’s lives. Friendship can be deadly…

So this was a decent thriller. I liked it, didn’t love it, but I feel that way about most thrillers, so that’s not particular to this one. What I did love, however, was how well Ms. Campbell crafted her characters. What was most remarkable to me was how deeply unlikeable almost every character in the novel was (there’s a female police officer whom I liked. That was really about it!). Aubrey is a social climber and desperate to sink her claws into Kate and what Kate’s status can bring her, and she doesn’t bother developing her own personality because of this. Ew. Jenny has her sights set on certain goals and allows herself to be manipulated in order to reach these goals (although there are some circumstances which make this a little more understandable), but she’s also willing to hide and destroy certain things in order to maintain a certain image. Ugh. And Kate is possibly one of the most manipulative characters I’ve ever read, and her pathetic, weak-willed boyfriend-turned-husband Griff had me rolling my eyes every time he opened his mouth. Gross. They were all such horrible, awful people that I was truly marveling at Ms. Campbell’s skill at creating a world filled with such unlikeable characters (and I swear, this is not sarcasm! This takes some serious skill as a writer and I’m in awe).

It was to the point where, by about three quarters of the way through, I wasn’t sure I cared whodunnit (meaning, which character in particular), because truly, everyone was so very awful that they all deserved some time in the slammer for various reasons! And the ending…predictable, yes, but honestly, it was pretty satisfying. I stayed up late to finish it, almost midnight- which is NOT something I make a habit out of; sleep is something I take pretty seriously after spending several years being dangerously sleep-deprived when my daughter was a baby- and was pretty happy with the way things wrapped up.

So if you’re looking for a decently-paced thriller stuffed with well-written, unlikeable characters you’d never want to hang out with in real life, It’s Always the Husband makes for a quick and fun read with a gratifying ending. Thanks, Mom!

Visit Michele Campbell’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · suspense

Book Review: A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber

Despite kidnapping being one of my worst fears, I’m still kind of drawn to fiction about it- I still remember exact lines from reading The Deep End of the Ocean by Jacquelyn Mitchard in my early 20’s. Maybe my brain feels like if I face it in a controlled setting, it won’t be so bad, and I can figure out how to prevent my own children from experiencing this terrifying fate? Who knows. I’m pretty sure I learned about A Girl Named Anna by Lizzy Barber (MIRA, 2019) from Susan at Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books– she’s fabulous; give her a follow if you haven’t already! It went straight to my TBR, but it’s been checked out almost continuously at my library for the past year. I got lucky with my last library order and was excited to dive into this dual-narrative suspense novel.

Anna has been raised in a fairly isolated fashion by her strict, religious widowed mother. Her life has been small; she hasn’t been allowed to do the things normal kids do thanks to her mother’s rules and overprotectiveness. A secret birthday trip to a local theme park (where she’s never been allowed to go) with her boyfriend (the pastor’s son, of course) brings back some strange feelings and images, though- a ride on a carousel, and the name Emily. Who is Emily? The man who leaves a bizarre letter in her mailbox seems to know, and Anna is positive that the images flashing before her eyes are real. When she discovers a hidden trove of items her mother tucked away long ago, she realizes something is very, very wrong, and that her entire life has likely been a lie.

Rosie’s lived her entire life under the shadow of her kidnapped older sister, a sister who was taken when Rosie was too young to remember. All she knows is parents who have struggled with the disappearance of their firstborn and the pain that infects their every move. When she realizes the trust that has funded the investigation into Emily’s kidnapping is about to dry up, she defies her mother’s wishes and begins looking into things herself. An online messageboard dedicated to crime investigation leads her down a rabbit hole of information, and soon Rosie’s turning up clues that have been long overlooked by authorities. As each girl lives out her own story on separate continents, the drama comes to a head and secrets buried for years come to light.

This isn’t an edge-of-your-seat thriller; there are some tense moments towards the end, but I feel like suspense fits this better. Ms. Barber comes at this with a strong voice; dual narrative (which I love!) can be hard to pull off, but Anna and Rosie have distinctly different voices. Anna’s narrative is stiffer, slightly more formal, a product having been raised by her mother (whose comparison to the mother in Stephen King’s Carrie does not go unnoticed by Anna’s classmates- a comparison she doesn’t quite understand, having been so entirely sheltered). Rosie’s tone is more relaxed, lighter but with the forced maturity of a child having grown up under the canopy of family trauma. The plot moves along at a brisk pace, allowing the reader to be fully immersed in the two girls’ divergent worlds, while still uncovering shocking information alongside of them as the story unfolds, yet never being overwhelmed by too much at once.

There are a few moments I felt pushed the boundaries of being realistic- Rosie’s discovery near the end, the one that convinced her mother of the veracity of her claims, for one- and many questions that are left unanswered, especially by what I felt was an abrupt ending with no follow-up to what was obviously a life-changing moment. How did Anna’s mother manage to do things like enroll her in school without a birth certificate? Did she forge one? How did Father Paul slip under the radar for that long? (I wasn’t buying that Mary was the first or only one he’s traumatized; in this age of the internet, someone out there had to be talking about the Lilies online.) What happened to Mason’s family after his death and what the Lilies did afterwards? Did they not care about what happened to their granddaughter? Did they condone what happened? I have a lot of questions that the book didn’t fully answer, and that left me feeling unsatisfied.

But overall, this is a strong novel about a devastated family, and two teenage girls who are beginning to question who they are and their places in the world against the backdrop of personal trauma. Anna’s mother is creepy as hell, and the way she and Anna lived fascinated me and kept me turning the pages. Despite my ambivalence about the ending, this was absolutely worth my reading time.

Visit Lizzy Barber’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White

I think I’ve said here about a million times that I’m not much of a thriller reader. I don’t care for that edge-of-your-seat tension, I’m not into reading about murder all that much, just…eh. But I’ll pick one up occasionally, and I grabbed Such a Perfect Wife by Kate White (Harper Paperbacks, 2019) from a used book sale two summers ago (which means the person who donated it must have bought it, read it, and passed it on fairly quickly!). I think it’s important to keep trying things I don’t necessarily love; it’s how I learned to finally enjoy olives in my 30’s!

Bailey Weggins has been assigned to write about the disappearance of Shannon Blaine, a mother of two from upstate New York who vanished while jogging. Hoping to impress her boss at the online crime magazine she’s writing for, Bailey throws herself headfirst into the case, interviewing everyone she can elbow her way in front of, but there are a lot of suspicious characters right off the bat: the slick husband (because it’s always the husband, right?), the jealous, less-pretty sister, the deacon who brushes her off constantly, the secretive best friend, a fellow reporter, the retired police chief. Bailey’s got her work cut out for her.

But not long after she begins digging, Bailey receives a phone call from someone who provides a tip that changes everything and turns the investigation from a search-and-rescue into the hunt for a serial killer. Everything is suspicious and the pieces don’t click together until it might be too late. Will Bailey make it out alive in order to report the truth?

Despite being about, you know, murder and death and other awful stuff, this was kind of a fun read. I’m TERRIBLE at figuring out who-dun-it (I’m also terrible at logic puzzles, thankyouverymuch; I would make an awful detective), so I had fun poring over the clues that Bailey dug up and trying to figure out what, if anything, they meant, and what was real and what was a red herring. I suspect everyone- I think I’ve only ever figured out the culprit in maybe two murder books!- so the constant guessing kept me on my toes through the whole book.

The setting here, Lake George in upstate New York, is pretty great. The isolated town where the story is set in the off-season gives the book a creepy feel, and I appreciated the several references to The Last of the Mohicans, which was also set in the area. The lake, while not featuring heavily in the plot, is described enough to nearly become a character of its own, which was kind of neat. The abandoned Catholic retreat center was suuuuuper creepy, straight out of every horror movie that has ever existed (and of course I was screaming, “DON’T GO DOWN THERE!!!!” as I read the parts where it appeared in the book, but after living through a pandemic and seeing all the stupid things that people do that make no sense, I wasn’t surprised that she went down there, because of course she did).

So. Fun book. It’s part of a series, though it’s fine as a standalone; I only occasionally got the feeling that I had missed out on some prior information, but none of it made a difference to the rest of the story as a whole. I don’t know that it turned me into a thriller reader, but I’ll keep picking them up now and then.

Visit Kate White’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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Book Review: The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy

Another book from my own shelves, the last read of 2020. I don’t read a ton of thrillers, but I don’t mind them when they’re more at ‘constant low level of unease’ versus ‘people chasing each other with knives and various other weapons through scary landscapes in the dark of night.’ I don’t want to be on the edge of my seat, but I do like trying to figure out what happened (and I’m really terrible at this!). The Perfect Mother by Aimee Molloy (Harper, 2018) seemed to fit those parameters, or at least it did at the two-summers-ago book sale where I tossed it into my paper bag with all my other literary treasures for seven bucks. Either way, that makes it a win for me!

The May Moms are a new mom group, meeting first online and then in a park near their Brooklyn residences. It’s been a year of changes for them- pregnancies, work adjustments, moves, the addition of these helpless new creatures who have upended every part of their lives- and they’re leaning on each other for support. A night out for some of them leads to an unthinkable tragedy, and when the media descends, several of the moms are left questioning exactly how things happened that night. Where is their member’s missing son? How can they all possibly cope with this? And what exactly makes a good mother these days?

I’ve been a part of an online mom group- two, in fact- since my 18-year-old son was a newborn. I understand the quick camaraderie that comes from desperately begging a group of internet strangers what this rash could possibly be or asking how you can get this kid to sleep because you’re about to lose your mind. Aimee Molloy captures the support, the gossipy cattiness, and the tentative new connections forged during this tense time of life quite well, and she’s absolute magic at painting the full picture of new motherhood- leaking breasts (and the intense worry that you’re breastfeeding incorrectly and your kid is starving to death), your body feeling nothing like the body you’ve lived in your whole life, the exhaustion that pervades everything, the constant renegotiations of other relationships in your life (including your marriage/romantic partnership)… The new mothers’ desperation and exhaustion was so blatant and real on the page that it started to make me feel a little panicky from time to time. I do NOT miss those days at all!

I had a little bit of a difficult time keeping the characters straight. The POV switches back and forth and I did have to stop and keep going, “Wait, which is this one?”, but the rest of the story holds up well enough that this didn’t throw me off too much (and to be honest, this is probably more a me thing; I will occasionally read an entire book and can recount the plot with no problem, but I’ll be entirely unable to tell you a single character’s name). The story of baby Midas’s disappearance, the fear surrounding it, the media sensationalizing it and demanding to know why these mothers were out on their own and not at home caring for their babies (because as we all know, babies will DIE DIE DIE the second their mothers step away to do anything selfish like eat or shower, and definitely if they want a few hours to themselves to be their own people and not just infant servants. Ugh), it’s all so very modern and ripped-from-the-headlines. I’d never heard of this book before (not even 50,000 Goodreads ratings), but I feel like it should have gotten more attention, because it’s basically a layman’s Law & Order episode in book form.

The Perfect Mother is gripping, but in a gentle way. It’ll keep you turning pages to find out what happened, but it’s not that uncomfortable-on-every-page kind of unease that generally keeps me away from thrillers. This was definitely worth my time.

Visit Aimee Molloy’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

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The Child Finder- Rene Denfeld

I’m not the biggest thriller fan- my brain makes enough anxiety of its own so I don’t need to go in search of it- and I’m not the hugest fan of missing and abducted children, either, but occasionally a book that ticks both of those boxes finds its way into my pile. A walk to a Little Free Library a few streets over had me grabbing a copy of The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 2017). I mean, it’s about a woman who finds children, right? Not just kids going missing or being abducted. That sounded like something I could handle.

Naomi Cottle has turned her nebulous past- a found child who came of age in the home of a loving foster mother- into a career, using her sharply honed instincts to search out children who have gone missing. Running from her own past and from connecting too deeply with others, she relies on word of mouth and her phenomenal success rate to give parents the answers, both miraculous and devastating, they’ve been denied for far too long. The subject of her latest case, Madison Culver, went missing months ago in Oregon’s beautiful but desolate Skookum National Forest, and Naomi has promised her desperate parents a resolution one way or another. The only things that might distract her from the case are her past, Mrs. Cottle, her dying foster mother, and the attention and growing affection from Jerome, the foster brother with whom she was raised.

Deep in the snowy mountains of the forest, the Snow Girl has developed a way to stay strong, stay alive, first in the dark basement of a man named B, and then as his companion, trapping animals in the woods. The stories she tells herself about what her life has become have helped her to survive this far, but things are changing, and the Snow Girl may not have much time left.

Content warnings for child abduction and captivity, and mentions of child sexual assault and death.

The Child Finder is a page-turner. I blew through the book within less than twenty-four hours, I think. I tend to shy away from thrillers because I can’t stand every page being so tense, but this book was a slow, simmering build, leading to a single major tension-filled climax (expected in a story like this, so I wasn’t bothered by it). Naomi has a mysterious backstory, having been found running in the night by migrant farm workers when she was just a child and dropped off at a police station miles away. She has no memory of her past, only wisps that come to her now and then, and that she fights against, scared and resistant to letting too much come back to her.

Her budding relationship with the man who was her foster brother is carefully written, sweet, and doesn’t feel at all creepy (years ago, I read a book, whose name escapes me, where the main character ended up hooking up with her stepbrother and I seriously could. not. even with that; everything about it felt wrong and gross, but Ms. Denfeld steers clear of that territory). Naomi is a complex character, and it’s fascinating watching her make the connections between the cases she’s working and her complicated emotions towards her past.

The Snow Girl’s chapters are occasionally difficult and painful to read when you remember how young she is and the horrors that have been and are currently being visited upon her. Her voice and strength feel authentic, which isn’t surprising, considering that Rene Denfeld has worked as an investigator and helped victims of sex trafficking (along with being a foster parent, which also lends authenticity to Mrs. Cottle’s and Naomi’s voices).

In some books, the setting is as much a character as any of the living people, and the isolated, snow-covered landscapes of the Skookum National Forest really give this book a creepy feel. The description never veers toward the long-winded, but instead allows just enough to create a menacing ambiance and a sense of desperation for Naomi, Madison’s parents, and the reader. It’s not a place I’d ever want to go after reading this, that’s for sure!

I tend to shy away from series, but there’s a follow-up to this book, The Butterfly Girl, and I enjoyed The Child Finder enough that I might actually pick #2 up (which is pretty high praise for me!).

Do you enjoy that edge-of-your-seat feeling when you read, or are you more of a read-to-relax person?

Visit Rene Denfeld’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.