It’s that time of year when all the people in the Facebook group “What Should I Read Next?” are asking for Christmas- or holiday-themed books. The presumption, of course, is that these will be cozy, feel-good, Hallmark-type stories to foster that precise experience of flannel pajamas and plucked heartstrings by the fire. But who’s to say that a Christmas story can’t be perilous and full of drama?
On the recommendation of Ivy-the-Librarian (one of my colleagues also on FB), I picked up the Libby (OverDrive ebook app) global Big Library Read community book for the month of November, Five Total Strangers, by Natalie D. Richards. It’s categorized as Young Adult, although it should properly be New Adult, since all the characters but the main protagonist are college students. Mira, however, is 18 and still a senior in high school, so I guess that was the determiner. Honestly, though, this book could be enjoyed by anyone who likes a heart-pounding suspenseful ride.
“Ride” is used literally in this case: The back story is that Mira, who has been living in California with her father while going to an arts-based high school, is returning to her mom’s in Pittsburgh for Christmas. While she usually gives herself a lead of three or four days before the holiday to travel, this year she pushed it to the last minute and is flying in on Christmas Eve morning. Unfortunately, due to the onset of a record-breaking snowstorm, she arrives in Newark to discover that her connecting flight has been cancelled and the airlines are sending passengers to local hotels until the skies clear. But Mira is determined to make it home for Christmas with her mom—it’s the first year they will be without her Aunt Phoebe, her mother’s twin sister who passed away a year ago from cancer, and Mira knows that her mother will need support to get through it. So when her seatmate on the flight into Newark says she is renting a car with three other friends and will be happy to drop Mira off in Pittsburgh, Mira jumps at the chance to be a part of the ride-along with Harper, Brecken, Josh, and Kayla.
Harper seems to be a reassuringly mature and well organized person, as well as friendly to and protective of Mira, so Mira feels confident climbing into the SUV with her and her friends. What she shortly learns, however, is that none of the others knows each other—they met at the airport and agreed to share the rental car—and now she is living out any parents’ worst nightmare, your child in a car with four strangers. Who knows what could happen?
In fact, more disasters and drama occur than one could imagine, even in these adverse circumstances. Above and beyond the tension created by the truly terrible weather and the constant driving hazards it presents is the gradual realization that someone in the car is actively trying to sabotage the trip, making such essentials as cell phones and maps disappear just when they are needed the most. But why? This is essentially a locked-room (in a car) mystery, and the ramp-up of stress is palpable. I especially identified with Mira’s conflicting feelings as she went from being determined to make it home to be with her mom to realizing that perhaps her own safety was going to have to take precedence over a picture-perfect Christmas, could she but bring herself to run screaming from the car.
I had some basic caveats as the story progressed: There is too much speculation with no progress or resolution on at least one character, while another is left too vague, considering a role as a major actor in the plot. I was also a bit irritated by some of the too-pat coincidences. But overall, the suspense is well maintained, the red herrings are effective, the breathless quality keeps amping up throughout, and you are poised to let out a tension-generated shriek should a housemate tap you on the shoulder or a pet jump in your lap at a pregnant moment.
If you want a book with a Christmas vibe but without the hearts and flowers, Five Total Strangers is definitely a Yule tale with a different effect! Because this is the Libby book for November, most larger libraries have unlimited copies of the e-book available for remote checkout. Access it, curl up with your cocoa, and prepare to be traumatized.
I read The Good Sister, by Sally Hepworth, on the recommen-dation of multiple people, although I held out for a while because it felt like one of those books about which excessive raving leads to inevitable disappointment. I am happy to say that wasn’t the case here.
In brief, there are two sisters (fraternal twins) in their late twenties: Rose, who is successful in her career as an interior designer and is happily married to Owen, but has recently endangered her relationship by becoming obsessed with having a baby; and Fern, a single librarian with a sensory processing disorder. The initial presentation is that Rose is the sister who has everything pretty much together, while Fern relies heavily upon Rose to guide her in life’s decisions and keep her on an even keel. Fern sticks to a rigid schedule of dining with Rose three nights a week, and otherwise carefully constructs her life to help her avoid all the many overwhelming situations with which she is unable to cope. This co-dependent relationship evolved from a difficult shared childhood with a narcissistic mother, and the sisters continue to fall naturally into the roles of protector and protected.
When Fern realizes that Rose is unable to have children, she reasons that this may be the one big thing she can do to pay Rose back for all her care and concern over the years. All she needs to do is find a father for the child. To anyone with traditional boundaries this would seem like a complicated issue, but to straightforward and literal Fern, it may be as easy as asking the first suitable male she encounters!
The point of view fluctuates between a direct narrative by Fern and the reading of entries of a daily journal that Rose is keeping at the suggestion of her therapist, whom she is seeing to help her with the tragedy of being unable to conceive. Through the agency of the journal, things are revealed about the two women’s past that will become particularly hazardous if a child is brought into the mix.
This book is billed as a thriller but, while it has aspects of mystery, suspense, and revelation to it that are definitely germane to the overall story and drive its action, the real reason to read this book is the co-protagonist sister, Fern, and her new friend, “Wally.” (I put his name in quotes because that’s what Fern calls him, due to his resemblance to the subject of the “Where’s Waldo” books.) Fern is a complex, nuanced character who interrogates the behavior of people around her and muses “out loud” about her own reactions to those behaviors. We are given the initial impression that Fern has been static in her routines, relationships, and accomplishments for a good long while; but as the story progresses so does Fern. Her forays into the unknown are a delight to witness, not the least of which is her relationship with Wally, who has issues of his own that may complement Fern better than she can believe.
I would categorize this as family or domestic drama more than suspense, although it is gripping in the end as issues resolve. But the best part of it is the wonderful characterization, the depiction of people who approach life differently, to be sure, but are in their own ways more together than the mundane “regular” folk can ever hope to be. I haven’t liked a character this well since Eleanor Oliphant.
Writing a book review by basing it on this readers’ advisory concept may be unfair, in that it’s a sort of spoiler. If you plan or planned to read this book but decide not to because I reveal that the ending is somewhat inconclusive, then I apologize. But I mention it for the good reason that I usually avoid open-ended fiction like the plague, being a person who wants my stories resolved, if not tied up with a too-tidy bow—but I enjoyed the questions left by this one and applaud the author for ending it in the manner she chose.
The book I am talking about is Verity, by Colleen Hoover, and I have been under subtle pressure to read it for a long time. Most of the pressure came from my own mind, but some from friends who urged it on me. It is one of the five books continually discussed, lauded, and recommended as “best” on the “What Should I Read Next?” Facebook page of which I am a member. This week, I discovered that the e-book was actually available from the library, and I finally succumbed.
Too much hype is almost always off-putting, and I think I probably would have enjoyed this book a little more if I had come to it with fewer expectations. Fortunately, I had never previously read a description of it, so some semblance of surprise remained intact. I knew Colleen Hoover was a romance writer, and for some reason I expected this to be romantic historical fiction, so when I opened the book to the first line, I was shocked and somewhat taken aback, but also intrigued.
In case you know nothing about this book (which seems impossible but probably isn’t), it’s the story of a self-effacing young author, Lowen Ashleigh, who has had some critical success but is on the verge of financial disaster when she is asked to “collaborate on” (which turns out to be code for write) the last three books in a series by the well known and immensely popular writer Verity Crawford. Verity has been in a debilitating automobile accident and her condition is “uncertain” at the moment, according to her publishers. Lowen accepts the lucrative offer made by Verity’s husband, Jeremy, and travels down to the Crawford home to look through Verity’s notes to get an idea of how to proceed. Although she plans to be there for only a day, financial difficulties paired with the sheer volume of material to peruse (plus her undeniable attraction to Jeremy) causes her to stay a while. But the entire sojourn is made increasingly uncomfortable by the discovery of an autobiography written by Verity that reveals a horrifying side to the Crawfords’
On its face, this is a rather typical gothic plot: Our heroine, young and unsure of herself, is put into a situation where she craves the attention of a seemingly unavailable man who may actually be more receptive than she initially believes. An obstacle (this time in the form of a critically injured wife) presents itself, but there may be a way around it, resulting in the union of the star-crossed couple. Victoria Holt mastered this one many times over, back in the 1970s.
That’s not to say that this book is a cliché, only that it’s not as unique as some would paint it. There are several things that set it apart: the frank depiction of sexual activities, which was verboten in the gothic oeuvre; the extenuating circumstances that occurred before the current timeline in this disaster-prone family; and the sheer creepiness of the alternation between the protagonist’s and the author’s voices as we jump back and forth between the present-day narrative (Lowen) and the words of the autobiography (Verity). And there is also the dark quality of life in the Crawford domicile in this moment, which is not to be discounted.
The final difference is that in the gothic romance tradition, all is resolved by the end of the book. Not so here, where a crucial piece of information casts all certainty into doubt and the reader is left to ask, What the hell just happened?
In the past in this column, I have complained of authors who just couldn’t resist putting the fix on every single dangling detail of their plot, to the detriment of the book, as in my rant about the epilogue of Things You Save In A Fire. At the same time, I am a person who does in general like a clear resolution to a story; it doesn’t have to be absolute, but if something is left hanging, I want it to give the implication that there will be satisfaction at some point. But having read Verity, I will say that there is something incredibly effective about making your reader say “Whaaaat?” at the end, which is that it keeps them thinking about your book for days after!
Perhaps you will read it and see what I mean; or perhaps you will curse me for leading you down this path without a pretty conclusion. Either way, be prepared for an interval of wild energy, uneasiness, confusion, and dread, wondering about the sanity of anyone who would willingly stay in a situation permeated by those emotions, regardless of the incentive.
I was between books and having a hard time deciding what kind of reading experience I was craving, and I ended up doing a reread of Crosstalk, by Connie Willis, to provide some light comic relief in between the literary and the dystopian.
To really love Connie Willis, you have to be willing to go along with a writing style that is a sort of frenetic stream-of-consciousness experience led by one or more of her characters. No matter their major premise, many of Willis’s books are based on the idea that people hope for the best but continually expect the worst, and that they can’t keep their mind on the present moment because they are either obsessively dwelling on the past or compulsively anticipating the future. And because sometimes more than just the protagonist behaves in this way, you have a built-in tendency for poor communication, missed opportunities, and sometimes comical results. Not that all her books are intended as farce (as is this one); but this frustrating communication style is almost universal in her stories, meaning that the tension builds from low to high as you continue to read. It engenders excitement along with the frustration, and certainly guarantees that you want to finish the book to find out what happens—did the protagonist’s worst fears come true? or did they somehow manage to pull off whatever was necessary to meet their objective? The test is whether you (unlike the main character) can deal with the anxiety while enjoying (in this case) the romantic comedy.
Crosstalk takes place in the not-too-distant future. Its main protagonist, Briddey Flannigan, works at Commspan, a company that is in direct competition with Apple to produce the latest smart-phone technology. Briddey is dating one of her co-workers, the sharply dressed smooth-talking Porsche-driving Trent, and is thrilled when Trent suggests to her that they undergo a new outpatient procedure that is all the rage, the EED. Simply explained, if two people are sufficiently invested in their relationship, then this operation creates empathy between the romantic partners so that they can actually experience one another’s true feelings. Trent implies that undergoing this procedure would be the run-up to a marriage proposal once they have achieved this desirable emotional connection.
There is a lot of interest from Briddey and Trent’s co-workers (and inexplicably from his boss) in their daring step, and attention of a different kind from Briddey’s family, who are all opposed to her undergoing the procedure. But when the celebrated Dr. Verrick who performs the surgery has an unexpected opening, Briddey and Trent go for it, only to end up with some unexpected consequences: Briddey finds herself connected, not to Trent, but to someone else entirely, and empathy is just the beginning of what she experiences.
The tension ramps up as Trent wonders why—a couple of days past the estimate when the doctor said their “channel” would open—the two of them have not yet connected; and between keeping it a secret that she is in synch with someone else and keeping her increasingly suspicious family at bay, Briddey is at the end of her rope. But that’s only the beginning, as unforeseen complications take all her energy and attention.
Crosstalk explores a timely topic for the Information Age—the perils of over-communication, along with miscommunication, gossip, deception and the many other ways human interchanges can go wrong. Connie Willis says on her blog,
The novel was partly inspired by our wildly over-connected world, in which we’re constantly bombarded with communication, most of it unwelcome, and partly by the misconceptions people have about what being telepathic would be like. They always assume it would either be profitable (finding out people’s computer codes or social security numbers or blackmailable personal secrets) or fun.
Mentioning the telepathy is a spoiler, but I guess if the author is going to do it, I can too, and it comes up quite early in the book. I made an illustration that goes with the story: This is Briddey, building an internal “perimeter wall” out of make-believe bricks, the reciting of poems and stories, and the enumeration of the types of marshmallows in Lucky Charms cereal, in order to keep other people’s thoughts at bay.
My reaction to this book is positive, although I do think that Willis could have cut about 100 pages from it and it would have been more readable. At some points the dithering, the familial interactions, and the feeling that you’re in the middle of an Abbott and Costello routine become wearing, and you want to move on to the next bit rather badly. My favorite romantic comedy of hers is To Say Nothing of the Dog; but the fact that I have read this twice speaks to its merits, even if they aren’t quite as great as some others of her books. It’s definitely worth it for the fun pop culture references if for nothing else!
As I noted a couple of days ago, I went on to read the sequel to Bird Box. I’m not going to say much about Malorie, because whatever I said would be fraught with spoilers. The key things to know:
The book begins 12 years after the end of the first book. The children are now 16-year-old teenagers and Tom, in particular, has an independent streak that frightens Malorie because of the blind world in which they still live. Both he and Olympia are at the age when rebellion is common, but it’s so much less safe to be a teenager in this post-event world of voluntary darkness: Nothing has changed with regard to “the creatures,” one sight of whom will still drive you mad.
But one day, someone shows up at the Jewish day camp where the trio are now living, and gives Malorie news that galvanizes her into action like nothing else could. The rest of the book is a series of adventures for the family that culminate in an interesting and somewhat satisfying ending.
I say “somewhat” because Malerman doesn’t feel the need to explain certain things. But the two books together form a much more satisfying story arc than does the first one alone and…perhaps there will be a third? If not, I won’t really mind; but if there is, I will read it.
I am not generally a horror reader. Somewhere in my mid-twenties, my then-husband introduced me to Stephen King and I read most of his books, but since then I can count the number of real horror stories I have read on one hand, and have regretted most of them! I am too susceptible a reader to be comfortable with this genre.
I will say first off that I didn’t find most of King’s books that horrifying. There are a few with elements that got under my skin, but many of them were just compelling reads with an undertone of uneasiness. And King tends, in my opinion, to go so over the top in his resolutions that it makes his books less real, as I feel he did in the book Cell. I loved the premise, but disliked most of the rest of the book.
I also differentiate between suspense horror and gross-out horror: I have read some of the latter (Michael Grant’s Gone series, The Monstrumologist, by Rick Yancey, a handful of zombie books) and have withstood their effects fairly well; but to me the most terrifying are the truly psychological ones where you’re not sure what is stalking you and may never find out. The Ruins, by Scott Smith, frightened me so badly that I swore never to read another horror novel!
I’m not sure yet whether I regret the decision to read Bird Box, by Josh Malerman. There was such buzz when it came out that I thought I needed to, but I put it off indefinitely until I needed to buy one more book from bookoutlet.com in order to get free shipping, and there it was.
It’s a small, short book relative to the amount of punch it packs. It is written fairly simply, and is not particularly introspective; some people have compared it to books like The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, for its spare lack of commentary, and I think that is valid. Something happens on a global scale—something BIG—and yet there is little speculation about the how and the who and the why in the midst of the panicky effort to avoid its effects. The protagonist, Malorie, comments that her housemates do eternally debate the topic, but fails to report back much on what they say or at what conclusions they arrive. The book is more of a daily factual account of relatively humdrum detail that nonetheless leads to increasing uneasiness and dread.
The basic premise is that there is something “out there” that, once encountered by humans, drives them rapidly and inevitably to madness, murderous behavior, and ultimate self-harm to escape it. Everyone who sees it succumbs and dies, most by their own hand. No one who experiences it is afterwards sane enough to explain to anyone else what, exactly, it is, so unaffected people are left not knowing whether it is a creature, a spore, an alien…the ultimate fright of the unknown.
The response to this threat is a retreat behind closed doors and closed curtains that rapidly escalates to boarded-up windows, blindfolds, and the desperate attempts to survive in the closed environment that used to be your home. The key to the terror is that it is something seen; keep your eyes closed and it (supposedly) can’t harm you. But…if you don’t go crazy from what you see, you very well might from what you imagine.
The setting and cast of characters is a small one: Malorie, alone after her sister has succumbed to the terror, finds her way, through an advertisement, to a household of individuals who are willing to take people in. The man who originally owned the house was a conspiracy-theory end-of-civilization kind of guy, and has a fully stocked cellar that will feed many people for a long time. He is no longer in the picture, but his friend, Tom, has seen the advantages and recruited others to live with him—half a dozen men, a dog, and three women, two of whom—Olympia and Malorie—are pregnant.
The book’s POV alternates between a time when Malorie is alone in the house except for two four-year-old children, and a flashback to five years previous, when she arrived at the house to meet and move in with its inhabitants.
The story is a deceptively simple recounting of the extraordinary measures they have to take in order to survive—for example, the daily trip to the well to fill their three buckets with water, blindfolded and feeling with their feet to stay within the boundaries of the path they have laid down, banging with a stick to avoid obstacles, all the while listening carefully to discover if anyone—or anyTHING—is near and constitutes a threat. In the five-years-along sections, it becomes clear that Malorie is finally ready to make a change for herself and the children, and recounts the horror of that journey. But between, in the past tense sections, the book is almost mundane in its acceptance of the daily horror.
I won’t give any more of the details of the book, except to say that the art of the tale is the dread you experience at this almost boring suspension of living. It also ends at the beginning of a new story, so you may feel compelled (as I do) to pick up the second book, Malorie, as against your will as it may feel to drag out the horror further—especially while sitting at home alone wearing a mask, in the midst of a global pandemic!
The Searcher is a departure for Tana French; and yet it possesses all the attributes that make me want to read her books—a leisurely pace with plenty of detail, a compelling protagonist, a mystery to be solved, ethical questions to ponder…just not in the context or, should I say, formula of
her others. She already left the self-created fold of the Dublin Murder Squad with her last, The Witch Elm, and was chastised for that by many readers; in this book, too, she has ignored many of her reliable “go-to”s, and yet it still reads like
one of hers.
I personally enjoyed this book more than I did The Witch Elm, simply because I found that book needlessly convoluted and complex, and with essentially unlikable characters. This one is, by contrast, rather simple in plot and, though furnished with some moral quandaries, still much more straightforward than almost anything else she has written.
Her other books are all told from a first-person perspective; this is the first in which we get to observe her protagonist from the distance of third person. It is still an intimate portrait, in that Cal’s thoughts and processes are revealed for us through both his shared thoughts and his actions, but it’s a little more observational, less self-involved. Cal is also the first protagonist who isn’t Irish, with the result that we get to see life in Ireland from an outsider’s perspective, without the peculiar insights of a native but with great attention to aspects not previously examined. (Her American voice is relatively flawless, and contrasts nicely with those of the Emerald Isle.) In her other books, the protagonist is strongly tied to whatever mystery there is to be solved; in this case, the mystery revolves almost completely around others, with Cal as a rather helpless observer in some instances.
Cal Hooper is 48 years old, retired after a 25-year career as a police officer in Chicago. His daughter is grown, graduated, and in both a career and a relationship; his wife has divorced him, and although he can see individual reasons why she might do so, he can’t quite put together the big picture, and is floundering a bit without her. The divorce, in combination with some troubling realizations about his identity as a policeman in a time when that role is being reviled for racism and corruption, threw Cal’s sense of self out of whack sufficiently that he decided to leave the force and make a big change. He has bought a run-down property in rural Ireland, a house that hasn’t been occupied for perhaps decades, and has moved there with the intention of putting his energies into fixing it up and creating for himself a quiet life away from the stress of the big city. His daily routine will consist of removing wallpaper, pondering how to make friends with the rooks inhabiting the oak tree in his front yard, making a trip to the local general store for a gossip with its proprietor, or getting a drink in the bar with the fellas.
“One of the things that had caught his attention, when he first started looking into Ireland, was the lack of dangers: no handguns, no snakes, no bears or coyotes, no black widows, not even a mosquito. Cal feels like he’s spent most of his life dealing with feral creatures, one way or another, and he liked the thought of passing his retirement without having to take any of them into account. It seemed to him that Irish people were likely to be at ease with the world in ways they didn’t even notice.”
Cal is making notable progress on this plan when the back of his neck starts to itch in the way it did back in his police days; he feels observed. After a period of wondering if someone has it in for the outsider in their midst, he manages to identify his stalker as a young teenager, Trey Reddy, and after some wariness on the kid’s part, finds out that Trey has sought Cal out because his older brother is missing and neither his mother nor the police seem to care that something may have happened to Brendan. Trey wants Cal to look for Brendan, but Cal realizes he is handicapped by the lack of everything to which he would have had access as a police officer in Chicago: files, databases, records, and material assistance from other officers on the job. But the kid tugs at his feelings for all those who slip through the cracks of the system, and there is also a residual excitement at the thought of being back in the investigation game, so Cal decides to help him.
This simple agreement shifts everything in Cal’s fragile idyll. His sleepy retreat, the small village of Ardnakelty where nothing ever happens and everyone has, so far, been “hail fellow well met,” becomes a slightly sinister place where Cal can’t tell if people are looking out for him with their warnings or subtly herding him towards his own destruction. Resistance to his efforts to help Trey discover Brendan’s fate makes him wary but doesn’t deter him, and from this point in Cal’s story things begin to head towards a showdown.
The thing about this book is, it’s not really a crime thriller. It’s more of a literary novel by a writer who chooses to use a mystery as a vehicle to study a character, a community, a locale. It’s atmospheric, well written, and well plotted, but if you go into it expecting French’s usual, you will be disappointed. If you approach it with an open mind, however, you will be gratified by a story that is subtle, lovely, and special.
Well, I said I would try one more Jake Lassiter mystery by Paul Levine before calling a halt, and now is the time for that call. I read Night Vision, the second book in the series, and my overall reaction was that it was a hot mess. I still enjoyed the main character, although he seemed much subdued in this book compared to how he was last time, but the author’s bizarre concept of how women think and behave put me off even more in this book than in the first. I know that at least one of them was supposed to behave strangely to cue you in to the fact that she had more to do with the mystery than anyone realized, but the rest of the women in the piece were likewise unbelievable and, frankly, offensive. They were completely confused or confusing, in that they alternated between coming on to Jake like a ten-dollar hooker on a slow night and rejecting his advances with a vehemence totally unjustified by his casual flirtatious approach. And what I’m describing is the same women in subsequent scenes!
Plausibility was another problem. The appointment of Jake as some kind of investigative attorney was thin, the trip to London with the lady psychologist for a meeting with a therapy group of serial killers was completely unrealistic, and the courtroom scenes were odd.
The thing I disliked most about this book, however, was how completely repellent were most of the characters. With the exception of Charlie Riggs (whose role was much smaller in this book), no one except Jake was either likable or engaging, and the contradictory ways in which they behaved made them unbelievable as well. It worked to allow Levine to keep shifting the focus of the story from one red herring to the next, to keep the reader guessing about the ultimate resolution, but in terms of character development it was a big fat fail. They were either mean, psychotic, hysterical (as in over the top emotional, not as in funny), or simply boring. And the ultimate fate of one of the characters was too gruesome to put on paper (this from someone who likes Dexter!).
The winning personality of Jake Lassiter is just not sufficient to carry a book, and Paul Levine will have to do without me as a reader from here on out. A few reviewers commented that this was their least favorite and the least plausible of the series and to take a chance on a later book, but I think I’ll pass.
Back to urban fantasy with another dose of Harry Dresden, who arrived from the library on my Kindle with less than two weeks to be read. And then, I swear I’m going to try something literary!