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Derailed Reads: Unfinished Books and the Redemption in Simone St. James

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Reading has always been an enjoyable challenge. I was the kid getting all the free pizzas through the BookIt Program. If you don't know what that is, it's just means you're very young and I am very...not. The BookIt program was an amazing partnership between Pizza Hut and the school system in which a child would pledge to read a certain amount of books in a given time frame and when they succeeded, they got a voucher for a free personal pan pizza. It was the magical 90's, long before I'd felt the let down of a disappointing book or discovered the power of Simone St James.

Part of the challenge as I got older was finishing books that I found less than enjoyable. Confusing books with overly flourished language, boring books that held no real plot, predictable books that followed the same overused tropes again and again. I could still mark it off my list and say I powered through. So when I say that I had to leave a book unfinished, it is truly a personal disappointment. It leaves a small pit in my reader soul that I desperately have to refill with something amazing to get myself back on track in my own mind with my reading habits. Isn't that a lot of pressure for something that's a hobby? you may ask. Welcome to my perfectionist brain. In my lifetime so far, there are only 2 unfinished books on my list.

The first was a fiction novel that I've been unable to find the title of. I've scoured Google Books to my wits end and come up empty handed each time. The tale begins with a European couple on vacation at a resort somewhere in Africa. They have been warned by the staff not to leave the resort property, as the surrounding territory is dangerous due to a group of rebels trying to gain control of the area. The couple, of course, don't listen and go for a stroll off resort property, in which they encounter a group of rebels slaughtering locals. From what I can recall, the husband is asked to sacrifice a finger to save a local's life but he is unable to do so. The wife, however, allows a rebel to cut off her pinky to save the life of a local woman. It then jumps to current time, in which the husband has taken his own life and been found by the wife in their home. The African woman comes to stay with her for his funeral. The couple had a son, who is around age 4 by this time and insists on dressing in superhero costumes, so there is a big focus on the boy being dressed this way as they go to attend the funeral. During the funeral, he either attempts to or successfully jumps on the casket to prevent it from being lowered into the ground or covered with earth. This was about as far as I got into it - this was several chapters in - when I had to put it down. It was very dark. Too heavy. I want to think that as the story went on they all helped each other heal by just being present, but the writing was so incredibly depressive, grief stricken, and guilt filled that I personally couldn't take any more of it in.

The second was a novel gifted to me by an old friend called J. It's sometimes compared to Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, which I read many years ago and really enjoyed. "J" is set in a dystopian future in which the collective memory of all people has been erased. There was some major catastrophic event, which is only referred to as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, and seems to possibly be related to the the habit of people drawing two fingers across their lips any time they say a word beginning with the letter J. The main character is named Kevern, who soon meets a woman named Ailinn. They develop a quick relationship that increasingly puts them in danger, but Ailinn's guardian Esme is on a mission to keep them together no matter the cost. It sounds really intriguing and I wanted to love it, but it was so mucked with unnecessarily obtuse language and writing patterns that I just couldn't. It was dry, slow, and evoked no emotion - which after reading a synopsis online I doubt was the author's intention given things that happen later in the book. I've read wonderful reviews of this novel, but it just missed the mark so much so that I never finished it before donating it to a local bookstore.

Two unfinished books is too many, so when I began The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle I was determined to finish it. Again, I wanted to love it. The plot summary on the book cover sounded amazing! One man reliving the same day while waking up in different bodies to try to solve a murder is the collection of all my favorite things - mystery, murder, and a bit of the unnatural. However, getting through the book was more similar to a punishment. Don't get me wrong, I made it through to the end! It was just really, really hard. The characters were hard to keep up with. Not because there were so many, but because a character would be mentioned in relation to something that seemed very important and then would just fade into the background until randomly reappearing briefly toward the end of the book. Some details provided seemed pointless, as though they could easily have been omitted without changing the storyline. Some details seemed to have been added in just to make the twists more convoluted, but the "big reveal" still fell flat.

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While I did finish this book, it left me feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. I knew I needed something really great to bounce back, so I can't even explain my excitement when I saw that my local library finally had an available copy of The Book of Cold Cases by Simone St. James. This is my 3rd novel by this author and I was an immediate fan within the first few chapters of the very first one. All of St. James' novels are mystery/suspense with a little supernatural twist.

My first read by Simone St James was The Broken Girls. Jumping between Vermont in 1950 and 2014, it follows journalist Fiona as she investigates the restoration of an historical home for troubled teen girls that also happens to be the location in which Fiona's sister's body was found after her murder as well as the mysterious disappearance of one of the "troubled" girls in the 50's. As the timelines progress alongside each other by the shared location, secrets are uncovered that may just solve both cases.

Next I read The Sundown Motel with my ladies' book club. Again, I was hooked immediately and fully immersed in the story of Viv in 1982 and her niece Carly in 2017. St. James proves a master of intertwining timelines in this novel, as Viv disappeared in 82 and Carly begins retracing - and somewhat reliving - her steps in an attempt to find out what happened to her by taking the same job as the night receptionist at the Sundown Motel that Viv held when she disappeared.

Third was The Haunting of Maddie Clare. While all of St. James' novels have the added bonus of a supernatural element - typically a spirit of some sort that visits or leaves clues to the main character to help solve the mystery at hand, this novel is primarily focused on the spirit of Maddie Clare, who is said to haunt the barn in which she hung herself during World War I, when Sarah Piper is sent to investigate the haunting. While Sarah typically finds that hauntings are hoaxes, she soon realizes that Maddie Clare is absolutely real and is real angry with men. Sarah must find out who she was and what happened to her before Maddie Clare destroys everyone involved.

After Evelyn Hardcastle, I knew another St. James would be my saving grace. The Book of Cold Cases follows Beth in 1977, a 19 year old "rich girl" accused of being the Lady Killer responsible for the seemingly random murders of two unrelated men. While Beth was acquitted, she retreats into her family mansion and stays out of the public eye. In 2017, side hustle true crime writer Shea, a survivor of her own brush with death as a child, has a chance encounter with Beth and gets the opportunity to interview her and others related to the Lady Killer case. Will Shea find that Beth really is the Lady Killer, or is there something more sinister at play in her old family home? I can't wait to find out!

Simone St James is also the author of Silence for the Dead, Ghost 19, An Inquiry into Love and Death, The Other Side of Midnight, Lost Among the Living, and Murder Road - all of which are currently on my TBR. She hails from Canada, where she left her day job of writing for television to focus on her novels.



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