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Search For Her, by Rick Mofina

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(Mira, 512 pages)

“Do you know where your children are?” Remember that haunting television ad? As the parent of a then teenager, it always gave me a chill because I didn’t always know. Kids lie and their friends cover for them. That’s the subtext of this excellent stand-alone novel by Canadian Rick Mofina. Riley Jarrett is missing and no one knows why. Did she run away or was she abducted? All anyone really knows is that she disappeared in one of the largest truck stops in the United States. She could, literally, be anywhere.

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Mofina’s plotline is straightforward. Parents Grace Jarrett and John Marshall are on a road trip to Pennsylvania from California, accompanied by Grace’s daughter Riley, 14, and John’s son, Blake, 17. The couple have been married for two years and John’s business has slipped. The trip is really a move, to a new place, new job, new life. Riley, typically, isn’t happy. She’s leaving her life in San Diego, along with her boyfriend, Caleb, a lot of friends and memories of her late father. The trip is fraught with Riley’s gripes and fights with Grace so when the group stops at the huge Silver Sagebrush truck stop outside Las Vegas, everyone is relieved when Riley tucks into the RV for a nap and a break from the family. When everyone returns, Grace sends Blake to check. He tells them Riley is asleep and they head on down the road. Later, when Grace again sends Blake to check, they discover that Riley is gone and Blake lied. She’s been left back at the Sagebrush.

The family’s return and the subsequent investigation are the meat of the novel along with the ticking clock. Every mystery lover knows that in an abduction, the more time that passes, the less chance of finding the victim alive. As police fan out, hunting through thousands of clues in the huge park and the nearby desert, Grace, John and Blake all have secrets to hide and information to uncover. There is a twist in the middle that no one will expect and it’s well done. Despite a huge cast of characters, essential for the plot, this is one of Mofina’s best.

One Who Has Been Here Before, by Becca Babcock

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(Vagrant Press, 280 pages)

If you grew up in a rural area, you knew about the Boogeyman. There were always people who were outcasts – who were strange or insular and didn’t fit. Sometimes they were just ordinary people but, occasionally, they turned out to be something else. This is the underlying conflict in this terrific debut novel by Becca Babcock, based loosely on the real-life case of the Nova Scotia Goler family.

Emma Weaver is a grad student in history; her MA thesis is a study of the notorious Gaugin family, a socially isolated unit in a rural area of Nova Scotia whose children were taken away 30 years before. Emma’s interest in the Gaugins is far more than intellectual as we discover early on. Just what her connection is and what harm her research may do is part of the discovery that opens the book.

Meanwhile, we are treated to a meticulous and fascinating collection of information that unlocks the plot of the Gaugins and their families. Babcock knows her historiography, and Emma’s search is fascinating as her information comes in bits of paper, old records and memories.

After reading this book I googled the Goler family for the gritty background. It’s a story that deserves to be buried. Babcock’s fictional tale uses the same framework, but she has a far more sympathetic eye than the journalists who covered the real tragedy. Read about the Gaugins; let the Golers rest in peace.

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Mirrorland, by Carole Johnstone

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(Simon & Schuster, 308 pages)

Identical twins who, as children, create a secret world in the space underneath the stairs grow up and fall in love with the same man; one marries him and stays in the family home, the other moves to a new life in California. Doesn’t seem like much of a plotline but that’s the backdrop to this superb psychological novel. El and Cat are the twins. Cat goes to California, while El stays in Edinburgh. Then El disappears and Cat is forced to return to Scotland and everything that happened.

The mystery of El’s disappearance is the nugget that gets the plot rolling. Is she dead or alive? In both cases, why? Cat returns to her old home, a Gothic pile loaded with rooms and memories, many of them unpleasant. Gradually, she uncovers clues, obviously left by El, but to what end? It’s clear that there are far more secrets to be unearthed and, eventually, they lead to Mirrorland, the place under the stairs where two little girls created a safe place. It’s hard to believe that this is Johnstone’s first novel. It’s slick and accomplished and drips with Gothic suspense but never swings into melodrama. This is a writer to watch.

We Are Watching Eliza Bright, by A.E. Osworth

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(Grand Central, 416 pages)

Eliza Bright is a coder hired by New York’s Fancy Dog games to develop sexual activities for a top game character. But Eliza’s star drops when her colleagues target her for cheap misogynistic tricks. Bright complains to the head of the company, is ignored, and then goes to social media. As quick as a meme can go viral, she’s fired and roundly hated by gamers who blame her for messing up their favourite game. Hatred leads to doxxing and Eliza is under assault. She heads for shelter with the Sixterhood, a feminist co-op that protects her while she searches for a way to repair the damage. It quickly becomes apparent that the assault on Eliza began before the move to Fancy Dog. Just who are the people watching Eliza Bright and what will it take to stop them?

Readers who are not computer-literate or gamers need not fear this book. Osworth makes everything understandable and the plot, based in the arcana of the game world, is fresh and fun. The narrative “voice” is a Greek chorus of cyberpeople who give a new punch to the concept of the unreliable narrator, as well as provide essential information to keep the action moving. As an added bonus, the book gives you insight into the world and lingo of the younger set.

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Two Wrongs, by Mel McGrath

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(HarperCollins, 375 pages)

Fans of Mel McGrath know that her openings are slow. Two Wrongs is no exception, despite a highly dramatic event. The setting is Bristol, England, and Avon University student Nevis Smith gets a call from a complete stranger saying that her friend Satnam is about to jump off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Nevis rushes out but it’s too late. Just what drove Satnam to jump is a mystery and Nevis has never been good at reading people’s signals.

Hers is one of three points of view in this book. The second is her adoptive mother’s, honour, who fears that Nevis might be tempted to follow Satnam’s example. The third is provided by Professor Chris Cullen, an unlikeable man who has his own secrets to hide. How these three converge is what the story is all about. Despite the slow beginning, once things get moving McGrath takes us into the high intensity world of today’s student, who is competing for everything from scarce jobs to hot internships. Nevis, with her bent for numbers and her naïveté about people, is a possible victim. This is a good psychological suspense novel and the slow slog in the first pages really does set up the action to come. Perseverance!

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