Book Review: The Nowhere Child by Christian White

Winner of the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award, The Nowhere Child is screenwriter Christian White’s internationally bestselling debut thriller of psychological suspense about a woman uncovering devastating secrets about her family—and her very identity…

Kimberly Leamy is a photography teacher in Melbourne, Australia. Twenty-six years earlier, Sammy Went, a two-year old girl vanished from her home in Manson, Kentucky. An American accountant who contacts Kim is convinced she was that child, kidnapped just after her birthday. She cannot believe the woman who raised her, a loving social worker who died of cancer four years ago, crossed international lines to steal a toddler.

On April 3rd, 1990, Jack and Molly Went’s daughter Sammy disappeared from the inside their Kentucky home. Already estranged since the girl’s birth, the couple drifted further apart as time passed. Jack did his best to raise and protect his other daughter and son while Molly found solace in her faith. The Church of the Light Within, a Pentecostal fundamentalist group who handle poisonous snakes as part of their worship, provided that faith. Without Sammy, the Wents eventually fell apart.

Now, with proof that she and Sammy are in fact the same person, Kim travels to America to reunite with a family she never knew she had. And to solve the mystery of her abduction—a mystery that will take her deep into the dark heart of religious fanaticism where she must fight for her life against those determined to save her soul…

The Nowhere Child is a contemporary mystery with a premise that reminded me of some teen thrillers that were popular in the early 2000s. What happens to a person who discovers that the life she thought she knew is built on a lie? What if it turns out that your parents aren’t really your parents? How would you handle finding out that you were kidnapped, way back before you were old enough to remember, and that you have an entirely other family out there in the world?

Kim’s life is turned upside down when a stranger shows up claiming that she’s his long-lost sister. DNA testing quickly proves that they are in fact siblings. But Kim knows that her mother was a good, loving person — how could she be a kidnapper?

Kim agrees to go to the United States with Stuart to meet her biological sister and parents, to see the Kentucky town where she was born, and to try to unravel the mystery of her disappearance. What happened all those years ago? Who took her, and why? And how did she end up growing up in Australia with woman she believed to be her mother?

The town of Manson, Kentucky has its own creepy secrets, among them a formerly popular pentecostal congregation with an outsized influence on its members, including Sammy/Kim’s mother Molly. Church members bear their snake bite scars as badges of honor — those who survive, anyway. As the narrative switches back and forth between Kim’s present trip to Manson and the past, almost thirty years earlier, when Sammy disappeared from her home, the clues and connections start to add up. And while Kim/Sammy’s kidnapping happened so many years ago, there’s still a threat lurking in the town when she comes too close to uncovering the truth.

I enjoyed the story and the puzzle of trying to figure out exactly what happened to Sammy, and the description of the different family members, townspeople, and their secrets. Some of the threads between “then” and “now” seemed a little flimsy to me, but overall, the plot is pieced together in such a way that the answers aren’t too obvious. I had a pretty good idea of whose stories had holes and where the missing connection might be, but it was still interesting to see it all come together.

We never really see much of Kim’s life in Australia, and I would have liked that piece of her life to be better fleshed out, especially to have seen more memories of her time with her mother. It felt like an important piece was missing, to see how Kim was raised and what her relationship with her mother was like. Likewise, it wasn’t entirely clear to me why some of the people in Kentucky in the “now” timeline acted as they did, and even once we had all the answers about the kidnapping, I’m not convinced that the motivation for taking and keeping Sammy made a whole lot of sense.

There’s a truly disturbing scene toward the end of the book that absolutely made my skin crawl. I mean, super icky and scary. Let’s just say that if you have a problem with reptiles and rodents, you should proceed with caution!

Overall, The Nowhere Child is a good, solid read that held my interest, even when I didn’t quite buy every element of the story. If anyone else has read it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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The details:

Title: The Nowhere Child
Author: Christian White
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Publication date: January 22, 2019
Length: 384 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

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Book Review: The Outsider by Stephen King

 

An unspeakable crime. A confounding investigation. At a time when the King brand has never been stronger, he has delivered one of his most unsettling and compulsively readable stories.

An eleven-year-old boy’s violated corpse is found in a town park. Eyewitnesses and fingerprints point unmistakably to one of Flint City’s most popular citizens. He is Terry Maitland, Little League coach, English teacher, husband, and father of two girls. Detective Ralph Anderson, whose son Maitland once coached, orders a quick and very public arrest. Maitland has an alibi, but Anderson and the district attorney soon add DNA evidence to go with the fingerprints and witnesses. Their case seems ironclad.

As the investigation expands and horrifying answers begin to emerge, King’s propulsive story kicks into high gear, generating strong tension and almost unbearable suspense. Terry Maitland seems like a nice guy, but is he wearing another face? When the answer comes, it will shock you as only Stephen King can.

 

I’m a Stephen King fan, no question about it, but I sometimes find that his books don’t stick the landing. I’ll be absolutely fascinated, glued to my seat, on edge, for 75% of the book,,, but when the ending finally arrives and all answers are provided, I can find myself feeling a bit let down.

No so in The Outsider. This is one terrific (and horribly disturbing) read, start to finish.

From the start, the premise is tantalizing and well-executed. A horrible, disgusting crime is committed. There are reliable eyewitnesses who definitively ID the perpetrator, a beloved public figure in their small town. Terry Maitland’s fingerprints are all over the crime scene and weapon and the interior of the vehicle used to commit the crime. He’s seen leaving the area, covered with blood. DNA at the crime scene is his. Ralph Anderson, lead detective on the case, is so outraged and infuriated that he orders the arrest to be made in as public a way as possible. There’s no doubt that Maitland committed the crime, and the public is aghast and infuriated.

But wait. Maitland has an alibi, and the more Ralph investigates, the more unbreakable the alibi seems. He was with other teachers at a conference out of town, and not only will they all attest to his being there, but he’s actually caught on video at the event at the same time of the murder. Can a man be in two places at one time?

By the time enough doubt has come up, more tragedies have piled on top of the initial murder. An out of town investigator is brought in, and soon, the trail seems to point to not only more crimes with a mystery double involved, but a fact pattern that can’t be explained by anything in the realm of what’s considered normal.

Wow.

This book grabbed me from page 1, and just didn’t let up. If pesky things like work and sleep hadn’t interfered, I’d have read it straight through — it’s that good, and that compelling.

I was particularly delighted by the appearance of…

MINOR SPOILER FOR KING FANS AHEAD!

STOP HERE IF YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW!

(BUT NOT A SPOILER FOR THE RESOLUTION OF THE OUTSIDER)

Holly Gibney, the memorable, remarkable, oddball heroine of the Bill Hodges trilogy, who has carried on with Finders Keepers, the detective agency she founded with Bill, even after Bill’s death at the end of the trilogy. Holly is brought into the investigation here on the recommendation of one of the Maitland family lawyers when a strange set of facts emerge about a family trip months earlier. Holly jumps in, unearths enough odd clues to start connecting some seriously weird dots, and ultimately is the one who gets the investigatory team to consider answers that lean more toward the supernatural than any of them could possibly have considered on their own.

I loved seeing Holly again. She brings a humanity to the proceedings that’s a breath of fresh air, and her offbeat demeanor and unlikely acts of courage are what’s needed to crack the case.

The entire cast of characters is well drawn and quite strong. Ralph is a great leading man, and I loved his relationship with his wife Jeannie. The lawyer, the DA, the investigator, the state policeman — all are quite good, and really emerge as individuals rather than stock characters in a legal drama.

But it’s the unfolding plot, with its mystery and creepiness and outright scenes of horror, that propels The Outsider at such a dynamic pace. I don’t want to say much more about what happens or why — but this is top-notch King, and you shouldn’t miss it.

A final word of caution for King readers: If you haven’t finished the Bill Hodges trilogy, but you plan to, you might want to hold off on reading The Outsider. The plots aren’t connected, but in conversations, Holly and the detectives discuss the cases she and Bill handled, and basically give away major plot point resolutions from the trilogy.

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The details:

Title: The Outsider
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: May 22, 2018
Length: 561 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Library

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Book Review: Head On by John Scalzi

 

John Scalzi returns with Head On, the standalone follow-up to the New York Times bestselling and critically acclaimed Lock In. Chilling near-future SF with the thrills of a gritty cop procedural, Head On brings Scalzi’s trademark snappy dialogue and technological speculation to the future world of sports.

Hilketa is a frenetic and violent pastime where players attack each other with swords and hammers. The main goal of the game: obtain your opponent’s head and carry it through the goalposts. With flesh and bone bodies, a sport like this would be impossible. But all the players are “threeps,” robot-like bodies controlled by people with Haden’s Syndrome, so anything goes. No one gets hurt, but the brutality is real and the crowds love it.

Until a star athlete drops dead on the playing field.

Is it an accident or murder? FBI Agents and Haden-related crime investigators, Chris Shane and Leslie Vann, are called in to uncover the truth―and in doing so travel to the darker side of the fast-growing sport of Hilketa, where fortunes are made or lost, and where players and owners do whatever it takes to win, on and off the field.

 

I loved Lock In (review), John Scalzi’s novel that introduced us to the world of Hadens and threeps as experienced through the eyes of new FBI agent Chris Shane. And when I heard that there would be another story set in the same world… well, excited isn’t even the word for it.

Here’s a quick refresher for those unfamiliar with the premise. Some 25 years in the past, a new strain of flu ravaged the globe, killing millions, and leaving a percentage of survivors “locked in” — fully aware, yet unable to carry out any voluntary bodily functions. Those in this locked-in state became known as Hadens, in honor of the syndrome’s most famous early patient, the wife of then-President Haden. As Haden’s Syndrome ravaged populations world-wide, enormous funds and resources were devoted to treatment, and the most significant innovations were the development of neural nets — basically, networking implanted in the brains of Hadens — and threeps — personal transport devices into which Hadens transport their consciousness, allowing them to move, interact, have jobs, and live in the world, all while their actual bodies are safely at home supported by life-support systems and caregivers.

Agent Shane is a Haden, who at one point was incredibly famous by virtue of his basketball star father’s enormous influence, popularity, and wealth. Now, Shane just wants a life of his own, out of the spotlight, pursuing a meaningful career and being a contributing member of society.

Okay, those are the basics of this sci-fi world.

As for Head On, I can safely say that this book lives up to the thrill-level of Lock In, presenting a whole new facet of Haden existence one year after the events of that book. In Head On, the narrative kicks off with a death on a sports field. But this isn’t football — this is the brave new world of professional Hilketa leagues, played by Hadens in threeps in a game that feels like a mash-up of rugby and gladiator combat. And just think about the weirdness of it all: While the players are superstar athletes with multi-million dollar endorsements, they’re also physically in their immobilized bodies at the same time they’re experiencing glory on the field. Hilketa players feel pain (league rules require them to keep their pain settings at a minimal level), but the physical damage — like having limbs or even heads ripped off — happens only to the threep itself.

The description of the game is both ridiculous and captivating — kind of like reading about Quidditch for the first time!

When a player dies after sustaining damage on the field, it quickly becomes apparent that there’s more going on then just an unfortunate sports-related death. The FBI is responsible for investigating Haden-related crimes, so it’s Agents Shane and Vann on the job once again. The agents’ chemistry is just as entertaining as in the first book, full of quips and banter, as well as an astonishingly effective good cop, bad copy routine that never gets old.

The mystery of the death and the implied scandal and corruption within the Hilketa league are intriguing. The clues and schemes are pretty mind-boggling, and I’ll admit that by the time the story starts unraveling financial misconduct and corporate fraud, I did get a bit lost in some of the details. No matter. The important connections are built up piece by piece, so that by the end, it all fits together in a way that makes sense and gives us the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys get what’s coming to them.

Despite the murders and mayhem, there’s plenty of fun along the way, especially when it comes to seeing Shane with his Hadens roommates and all their goofy dynamics. Oh, and did I mention the cat? There’s a cat. And the cat becomes a crucial bit of evidence in a way that’s cute and clever and made me laugh.

A word about gender:

You may have noticed that I refer to Agent Shane as “he”… and that’s just not entirely accurate. Both Lock In and Head On are written in the first person, with Chris Shane as narrator.

And, I’m ashamed to say, it absolutely never occurred to me that the author never actually specifies Chris’s gender. I suppose I assumed that Chris was short for Christopher, back when I first started Lock In, and I pictured Chris as a male throughout my read of the first book. It wasn’t until I encountered this article prior to the publication of Head On that I even realized that I’d jumped to conclusions.

Again, John Scalzi NEVER SAYS whether Chris is male or female. Both are possible. And what’s really cool is that two versions of the audiobook are available, one narrated by Wil Wheaton and one by Amber Benson. I downloaded the Wil Wheaton version back when I got Lock In, and wasn’t aware that there was any other version.

So now, as I was reading Head On, I couldn’t help hearing Wheaton’s voice in my head and consequently continued picturing of Chris as a male — but at least now, I stopped to think and reconsider certain scenes. Would the dynamic of Shane and Vann’s banter come across differently if it was between two females agents, rather than male and female? Is there an element of sexual politics implicit in the male/female working partnership that would have struck me differently if the gender differential was removed?

I can only imagine that the tone of certain parts of the story would feel very different to me if I’d been picturing a female lead character all along. So I’ve decided to put it to the test. Not right now, but sometime soon, I plan to revisit Head On by listening to the audiobook, and this time around, I’ll choose the Amber Benson version. Should be fascinating! And if I find that it’s a really different experience of the same story, I’ll be sure to report back.

Enough of my rambles…

Back to the review: I can definitely recommend Head On for anyone who enjoys science fiction with a touch of humor. While Head On doesn’t feel quite as revelatory as Lock In, in which the author had to build a whole new reality, it’s still quite an enjoyable, attention-grabbing read. John Scalzi is an amazing writer, and I hope he’ll continue to explore this world in future books.

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The details:

Title: Head On
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 17, 2018
Length: 335 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Guest Room

Guest RoomThe Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is a dark, disturbing look into the world of sex trafficking, as well as a meditation on love, marriage, and the tests a relationship can withstand.

Richard Chapman — 40 years old, a well-off investment banker with a beautiful Westchester home, a lovely wife, and terrific 9-year-old daughter — has the best of intentions when he agrees to host a bachelor party for his younger brother at his home. His brother is a careless, selfish sort with a bunch of equally immature friends, but Richard figures having the party at his house is better than ending up in a strip club. And sure, everyone espects that there will be a stripper showing up — but what they don’t expect is two beautiful, young strippers who seem willing, for a price, to do much more than strip. And they definitely don’t expect the two intimidating guys who seem to be the girls’ handlers, bodyguards… or something even shadier.

Things get out of control, and quickly. And before the night is through, one of the strippers has stabbed one of the guards in the throat, the other guard has been shot, and the girls have run off, leaving behind a group of shocked and terrified men, a house that’s a bloody mess, and at least one husband with a lot of explaining to do.

Richard’s world is immediately turned upside down. He has to explain to his wife that while he was tempted by the offer of sex (and in fact, went upstairs with one of the girls), he did not actually have sex with her. He has to face the fact that the girls involved may have been minors. He has to deal with the immediate tabloid headlines about orgies in the suburbs and the subsequent damage to his reputation. And on top of all this, he can’t get the girl named Alexandra out of his mind. He went upstairs with her, even took off his clothes, but was somehow so touched by her youth and vulnerability that all he wanted to do was protect her.

At the same time, each chapter ends with a segment told from Alexandra’s point of view. Alexandra is not her real name, but it’s the name she’s used for the past five years, ever since she was lured away at age 14 from her small town in Armenia by the promise of ballet lessons in Moscow. What she got in Moscow was not ballet, but rape, imprisonment, and forced sexual slavery. Deprived of all access the to outside world, Alexandra was brutalized and forced into a life as (as she puts it) a “courtesan” and a “sex toy”. She and other girls her age are kept locked up, kept pretty, and trained to please the endless stream of wealthy and powerful men whom they service. There’s no other word for it — it’s horrifying.

The intersection of Richard’s world and Alexandra’s world blows both of their lives apart. Richard’s marriage is in crisis, his daughter is disgusted, his home feels violated, and he’s been placed on leave by his banking firm, which wishes to distance themselves from the lurid, sordid details that the press is delighting in sharing. Richard’s brother’s friends are being shady, and while Richard is not in legal trouble, he has plenty of reason to worry about his future.

Meanwhile, Alexandra and the other girl, Sonja, are on the run, but without resources — no place to turn for help, no ID or credit cards, nothing but the clothes on their backs, the cash in their pockets, and the guns they’ve taken from the dead guards. They know that they can’t stay in New York, with the Russian gangsters who own them wanting them dead, but they have no experience being free or making their own way, and have no one they can trust.

To say that this book is upsetting is an understatement. I couldn’t put it down or look away, but it left me feeling so bleak and full of despair. The fact that Alexandra’s story is fictional doesn’t mean that these sorts of things aren’t taking place in the real world. The Guest Room provides a peek into the world of sexual slavery, and it’s grim and dirty and depressing as hell.

Which is not to say that The Guest Room is not a good read. It’s actually completely engrossing, and once I started, I couldn’t stop reading. The main characters are all so well-developed that we get to really understand them as complex people, not cookie-cutter characters. Richard screws up, but he’s still a good person. He loves his wife and child, and wants to do the right thing, and still, inadvertently, brings all sorts of horror and chaos into their previously perfect lives. Richard’s wife Kristin is humiliated and hurt, but she also loves her husband and values their life together. She doesn’t always do what’s expected, and the author avoids the more clichéd roads with Kristin by showing the deeply thought-out choices that she makes.

Alexandra is a tragic, fascinating character. Seeing the world through her eyes in the parts she narrates, we get to understand what hopelessness truly is. Her voice is distinct and feels very real, and it’s incredibly disturbing to enter into Alexandra’s intensely awful existence and understand why she thinks and behaves as she does.

The Guest Room is powerful, upsetting, and impossible to put down. Chris Bohjalian is a masterful writer who seems to be at home in any genre. This book is a crime thriller, but it’s also a character study and even, in an odd way, a story about what makes a good marriage. I can’t say that it’s a pleasant read, but it’s certainly a great one.

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The details:

Title: The Guest Room
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley