Lucky Charms

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!

Malorie

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.

Creeping horror

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 new French

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.

Halt!

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!

Promising set-up

How many times have you started a book review with the words “It had a promising set-up”? You probably already know that the next word in that sentence is “but…” Yes, I’m back to suspense novels that don’t pay off. Maybe I need to switch genres for a while.

I picked up Have You Seen Me? by Kate White because the plot summary reminded me of What Alice Forgot, by Lynne Moriarty, a book I enjoyed quite a bit. In this one the protagonist, Ally, is only missing two days (not 10 years) of her life, but I love the way the writer starts it off, with her showing up to work in the morning only to realize that she hasn’t been employed by that company for five years. She faints and is sent to the hospital, and when she wakes up she gradually recalls her current life (including the husband who temporarily slipped her mind in favor of the boyfriend who ran the company where she went that morning), but can’t piece together where she has been since Monday night (it’s now Thursday morning).

Events take a logical progression as she has a psych eval, checks in with her own therapist, searches for missing belongings, calls her brother and friends to see if she has had contact with them during her blackout, and eventually decides to hire a private detective to back-trace her movements and put it all together. But this makes it sound pretty straightforward, when in fact the book meanders repetitively through Ally’s experiences to the point of shrieking boredom: Every time she discovers a new fact, she tells her husband, her brother, her best friend, her therapist, and her private investigator, and the reader “gets” to sit through all the explanations and then hear each reaction in turn (most of them both unsatisfactory and unhelpful to Ally). The author was also unnecessarily parochial about such psychological terms as “dissociative fugue state” and “rigor mortis”—I think we have all watched enough TV that it would be a miracle if we didn’t know the definitions already!

In contrast to all this excruciating detail, there are areas that are left vague (one can only assume purposefully) that should have been the absolute first places that the investigation went: Number one, her husband is acting super weird—aloof, unsympathetic, and largely unavailable. If I were Ally, the first thing I would do is rule out Hugh by either having a frank talk with him or getting perspective from people who know and are in contact with him (work colleagues, friends, etc.). Instead, she alternately obsesses or ignores. Number two, if you turned up after two blank days with bloody tissues in your pocket and it is determined that the blood isn’t yours, wouldn’t that be your primary focus before such details as where you ate lunch or who you talked to on the phone while you were “gone”? It would be mine, but that fact is brought up briefly and then ignored for the rest of the book until the ending. Number three, the way events unfold and the reasoning behind them regarding the fate of the private investigator is just outrageously bad. Number four, her supposed best friend is constantly MIA, first because she is out of town and then because she gets the flu. When Ally catches her in a lie, this should have been the lead-in to something significant, but instead it’s dropped with a ridiculous explanation. This is the case for so many characters/red herrings, both major and minor: the intern who drops hints about the ex-boyfriend, the intern’s friend who seems to know Hugh a little too well, the ex-boyfriend who hasn’t spoken to her in five years but is suddenly calling her a couple of times a day, the unaccountable feeling of unease she gets that her therapist is purposely steering her away from certain truths, her brother’s new wife’s backstabbing…any and all of these could and should have led somewhere—anywhere! I guess I just should have said “don’t get me started” instead of writing all of this!

And let’s talk about that ending without giving it away: After all the drama, the sleuthing, the surprise details, the fractured relationships, the horrifying events past and present, you’re telling me THAT is how you end this? Sure, I guess it’s possible, but plausible? Given the exceedingly awkward treatment of that whole aspect of the book, this was perhaps the least convincing (and most disappointing) conclusion.

Do I even need to type the words? Not recommended. Despite some inexplicable five-star ratings on Goodreads. Trust me.

Tech run amok

Finally—a suspenseful story that I actually enjoyed! Take Me With You, by Tara Altebrando, is a combination of science fiction and suspense…although the science fiction is so close to reality that you could drop that out of the description with some justification. When I say that the events of this book could be “near future,” I’m talking weeks or months,
not years.

Four teenagers who attend the same school but barely know one another—Eli, Marwan, Eden, and Ilanka—are all summoned via the school’s messaging app to report to the music teacher after school about “an important matter.” When they arrive, there’s no sign of the teacher, and after waiting for a while, they think it must have been a mistake and prepare to leave. But there is a small black cube sitting on one of the desks, and as they talk it over, its sides light up with messages:

“Do not tell anyone about the device.”
“Do not leave the device unattended.”

They all agree that it’s weird, and the best thing might be to walk away, and then…

“TAKE ME WITH YOU…OR ELSE” appears on the cube, immediately followed by a fire alarm going off. As they evacuate, Eden grabs the cube and shoves it into her backpack, setting in motion a bizarre interval in all their lives as the instructions from the cube grow more arbitrary and more adamant and they all scramble to meet its demands. When one of them decides to disobey, there are scary consequences that make them all wonder how this is going to end.

The thing I think I liked the most about this book was that the characters, although invested in this mystery, were multi-dimensional (and multi-cultural, by the way) and had a lot more going on in each of their lives, so that the advent of the cube was mostly an irritant and an inconvenience (at least at first) rather than the main thing on which they were all focused. Too many YA books are mono-focused, and unless it’s very well done, it gets monotonous. But in this book, which takes on the topics of stereotyping, anxiety, grief, and racism, Eden has boy problems and family issues, Marwan and his family (and their restaurant) are experiencing xenophobia for being Egyptian, Eli is a gamer who is more comfortable in his created world than in the real one, and Ilanka is busy figuring out priorities, trying to decide whether it is more important to her to be accomplished or to be happy. So interaction with the cube either accentuates their dilemmas or brings up new ones to distract them, and becomes a part of the story rather than the whole. It also brings them together as a unit as a result of outward motivation rather than choice, which shows all of them how little they knew the people around them and how, if they paid attention, they might find previously unrecognized value in their classmates.

As for the cube itself…a fairly classic story of artificial intelligence gone wrong, but with the advantage that it’s something that could actually happen. Consider all the data collection, spying, and hacking that is already going on in the world. Then think about Alexa, already able to a degree to self-program, by learning from repeated experiences and providing what you want or need in your home or car. Now give her a little boost, so she is aware enough to become curious about human interactions and to experiment with your reality by trying out things you haven’t requested or approved, with little critical judgment about what is trivial and what is potentially catastrophic. Now you have the propelling idea.

The story, which is presented from the teens’ multiple viewpoints (mostly according to who is currently in possession of the device), is a compelling page-turner. I wanted to know what would happen to the characters, and I also wanted to know the origins and rationale behind the device and why it was presented to these four, at this time, and for what reason(s).

The whole tale definitely makes you think about the various uses of technology, and how vulnerable we are when we allow its intrusion too far into our lives. It’s time to wake up and make the hard choices about tech: whether to surrender to it, tame it and keep it on a tight leash, or banish it in the name of autonomy. This could be a great book for a group discussion in a book club. Pair this with Cory Doctorow’s For the Win to expand your ideas on this topic.

Twin folly

As do many, I love a good twin story. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of being a twin, probably because I’m an only child and so have never had a sibling, period. The idea of having one who looked just like me has appealed ever since childhood days with the dual incentives of the 1961 version of The Parent Trap, starring Hayley Mills, released when I was an impressionable nine-year-old and, two years later, the advent of The Patty Duke Show (in which American Patty has a British cousin, Cathy, who looks just like her, and can pass if she can manage the accent).

In the YA novel The Secrets We Keep, by Trisha Leaver, there is a lot happening on top of the two protagonists being twins. Ella and Maddy are in their senior year and, although they were inseparable and likeminded up through middle school, in high school there came a parting of the ways. Maddy somehow managed to ascend almost instantly to the heights of popularity, including being both a star athlete and the girlfriend of the prom king, while Ella, more independent and less outwardly motivated, got over her initial hurt at Maddy leaving her on the sidelines, made one close friend in Josh, and focused on scholastic achievement and art. She and Josh have plans after high school that include the Rhode Island School of Design, while Maddy seems wholly taken up with the high school experience. And although each girl has chosen the path that seems right for her, there can’t help but be some bad feelings between them as a result of those choices. Ella feels simultaneously excluded and put-upon, as Maddy avoids her most of the time but still relies on Ella to bail her out by lying to their parents and even taking an occasional Spanish test for her so Maddy doesn’t flunk out. Maddy, on the other hand, doesn’t understand why Ella won’t make an effort with her appearance and her social status, and feels like Ella is judging her when Maddy prioritizes the frivolous over the serious. Ella is tired of being “the sensible one” to their parents while Maddy gets to be carefree and irresponsible, while Maddy resents Ella’s good standing.

All of this comes to a head one rainy night when Maddy calls Ella in the wee hours to come fetch her from a party. Ella grudgingly goes, but the two get into a fight on the way home that ends in catastrophe when Ella jerks the wheel in irritation and the car hydroplanes into a tree. Ella wakes up two days later in the hospital; not only does she not remember the accident, but she also doesn’t remember who she is. There is a boy in her room, however, who seems familiar to her and keeps calling her Maddy, so she assumes that’s her name. It’s only a day later, after her parents and friends follow Maddy’s boyfriend’s lead in believing that she is Maddy that she realizes everyone has made a mistake and she is actually Ella. When she discovers Maddy is dead and that the last words they shared were hateful, Ella is overwhelmed by guilt and grief. She also sees how glad her parents are that she is alive, and jumps to the conclusion that they would prefer Maddy to Ella if they had to pick a sole survivor. In this confused and heartbroken state of mind, Ella decides that Maddy deserves to have the life she wanted and therefore, Ella will give it to her by becoming her.

This is where the whole thing began to break down for me. I could understand the mistaken identity thing and the survivor being reluctant to reveal she wasn’t who everyone thought she was, especially given that she assumes they would all have preferred her sister to herself. What I couldn’t fathom was Ella believing that it would make any difference to anyone but her whether she continued life as Maddy. She certainly can’t make anything up to Maddy; Maddy is dead. And whether or not her belief is true that everyone would have preferred that Maddy be the survivor, the idea that she can pull this off is laughable.

First of all, her sister is co-captain of the soccer team, up for a scholarship to college. Ella doesn’t play soccer. Second, she’s been with her boyfriend, Alex, for more than two years, and they have been having sex during all of that time. Ella is a virgin. Third…oh hell, there is no third. Maddy is dead! You can’t change that. You can’t be her. Get over it.

I guess it’s possible that grief could drive someone to these ridiculous lengths for a day or two, but…weeks? Weeks of pretending to be dumber than you are (Ella was in all Honors classes while Maddy is barely passing), less artistic (Maddy doesn’t draw), more fashionable (Ella hasn’t got a clue and resorts to old photos of Maddy to put outfits together), and reluctant to even exchange a kiss with your steady boyfriend of two years? Weeks of letting your parents believe this lie? Weeks of betraying your best friend by pretending not to know him? All in the goal of “giving Maddy a life”? C’mon.

Then there’s the whole sub-plot when Ella finds out that Maddy did something really bad and wants to put it right but doesn’t want to give herself away. The whole thing was so anti-climactic it might as well not have been included.

I guess I’m just on a roll for picking out suspense novels with implausible plots this week. There are a lot better books about twins out there, too, from the Bobbsey Twins to The Man in the Iron Mask! Or hey, go watch one of the two versions of The Parent Trap, 1961 or 1998: Deception is minor, hijinks ensue, true love wins, the end. Much the better choice.

Not thrilled

I have read all of B. A. Paris’s books, most of which would be considered either suspense or thriller. Many writers (and publishers) and many readers’ advisors can’t tell you the difference between a mystery, a suspense novel, and a thriller. After reading exhaustive discussions and dissections, here are the differences at which I have arrived.

First of all, neither a suspense nor a thriller is about solving a crime, they are about stopping a killer or a crime. So they are not necessarily a whodunit as is a mystery; we may know who the villain is from page one.

In a thriller, the protagonist is in danger from the outset, and action is a required element. Pacing is the key ingredient. In suspense, danger is more important than action, and the protagonist becomes aware of danger only gradually. “Suspense is the state of waiting for something to happen,” said Alfred Hitchcock. Setting and mood are key. There must be terror, confusion, upset, and conflict.

A thriller has to start off with a bang, and have a clearly defined hero and villain, because the thriller is all about the push and pull between the two. By contrast, the only real requirement of a suspense story is that it build, and that it keep the reader on edge with a series of reveals or surprises until the final one. Suspense can be present in any genre; a suspense novel is simply one where the reader is uncertain about the outcome. It’s not so much about what is happening as what may happen. It’s about anticipation.

Given those definitions, I would term most of Paris’s books as suspense, although I have seen them referred to (and have done myself) as thrillers. She is great at building her narrative from seemingly innocuous to a crazy amount of tension. Perhaps her best example of this is Behind Closed Doors, in which you know, almost from the first page, that there is something wrong, but have no clue just how much there is to uncover until the story really begins to ramp up.

When I bought my copy of The Dilemma, therefore, it was with a great deal of anticipation that it would give me a likewise breathless interval. Unfortunately, I failed to achieve “that willing suspension of disbelief” (touted by the poet Coleridge) about some of the key facts present in this book upon which the story depends.

The basic premise is that Livia and Adam, married for 22 years, each has a secret he or she wishes to tell the other, but can’t quite bring themselves to do so because of the circumstance in which they find themselves. But it is that circumstance that sets up, for me, the biggest roadblock in this story.

Livia and Adam met when Livia was 17 and Adam was 19; Livia became pregnant, and was summarily rejected by her parents even though she and Adam married promptly, before baby Josh was born. Four years later, they added daughter Marnie to their family. The couple are happy in their marriage, pleased with the way their children have turned out, and possessors of many good friends, the most prevalent of whom are two other married couples about their age, and these people’s children.

Because of the dual facts of Livia’s pregnancy and the rejection of her by her parents, the two had a hurried civil service and were deprived of the big formal wedding about which Livia had always dreamed. This has apparently preyed upon Livia’s mind over the years to the point where she has saved up her money since she was 20 years old in anticipation of a huge and elaborate celebration for her 40th birthday. The story itself takes place during the 18 hours or so surrounding that celebration. And the birthday bash is the vehicle used to delay the confiding of devastating facts between the spouses.

This is the one big place where the story lost me. If you have that much regret about missing out on your wedding, why not stage another wedding? People renew their vows all the time and use that occasion to have things just as they would have wanted them on their big day. At one point Livia even comments that if she had waited an additional couple of years, the party could have been for hers and Adam’s 25th wedding anniversary, but no; she is determined to do it for her 40th birthday. This seemed to me to be so self-regarding as to constitute a problem; but apparently Adam is fine with it.

If a renewal of vows or a big anniversary are off the table and you’re so determined to make it all about yourself, why wait? Why not have the party at age 30? Why be so focused, for literally two decades, on one particular birthday? The story details at length how every time she went shopping and saw a fabulous dress, she mentally tried it on as a possibility for her big day. I just didn’t buy it that a person could be so self-obsessed with celebrating a particular birthday that they planned it over that extended period of life.

So, on to the secrets. Livia’s secret involves her daughter Marnie, 19, who is doing a year abroad through her college, and has been in Hong Kong for most of the past year. It turns out her finals are during the same week as Livia’s party, so she has told her mother she won’t be able to make it. Because of this big secret, which Livia has not discussed with anyone because she first wants to confront Marnie, she is somewhat guiltily relieved that her daughter won’t be coming home yet. She doesn’t want to divide her focus between the party and managing the fallout from the revelation amongst several people in their social circle. But Livia feels guilty for not having shared this information with Adam.

Meanwhile, Adam and Marnie between them have planned a surprise for Livia’s party, but events don’t go as planned and suddenly, Adam is overtaken by news that, if he shares it immediately, will ruin Livia’s big event. He is left to reason that as long as he doesn’t know the facts for sure, no one can fault him for not speaking up; but he knows that if and when Livia discovers how long he held this news back from her, she will be legitimately enraged. So Adam and Livia both spend the hours of the party keeping secrets from one another that they know will inevitably be revealed as soon as the party is over, and this dread (especially for Adam) overshadows what should have been a joyous occasion.

That’s it. That’s the story. That’s the source of suspense. And the machinations to which the author resorts in order to enable Adam and Livia to keep their secrets from one another are just ridiculous. Yes, by the definition I spelled out earlier, this does qualify as suspense for much of the story, although I couldn’t say that I remained uncertain about the outcome. But the vehicle here is a family drama that could have been adequately dealt with in a succinct and much more engaging short story, not dragged out for 342 pages of angst.

I’m not going to say, like some other reviewers on Goodreads, that I’m done with Paris and won’t read any more of her books; but if you liked the others of hers that you have read, my suggestion would be to skip this one and hope that she delivers a real page-turner next time.

Surprise heir

Ruth Ware’s novel The Death of Mrs. Westaway incorporates several things I love, and I was drawn to it from the first page. The protagonist, Hal (Harriet) Westaway, is such a vibrant character and her precarious existence is so appealing that it’s hard not to buy in.

Hal has been raised by a single mother in a small but unusual and fulfilling life; her mother was a tarot card reader in a booth on the pier in Brighton Beach and, partly through instruction and partly through absorbing the daily atmosphere of her mother’s tradecraft, Hal has acquired all the skills to follow after her when she is tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver right outside their front door.

Hal stays in their small but known and comforting bed-sit after her mother is gone, and takes up the mantle of tarot card reader, although she always hearkens to her mother’s voice in her ear that tells her not to believe the patter that makes her so successful with her clients. Hal enjoys the combination of the beauty of the tarot and the skillful use of psychological clues to direct the faith of the tourists and drunken hen parties in her “fortunes”; she doesn’t care for those few fanatics who return again and again trying to come at truths that Hal knows better than to promise them.

Hal has made one foolish decision in the aftermath of her mother’s death; between the halting start-up of her takeover of the tarot booth and the slow months of winter that don’t contain the huge number of customers present during the tourist season, Harriet got behind on her bills and resorted to visiting a moneylender. She is stunned to realize how quickly and disastrously the interest on this loan has compounded, and is in imminent danger from the loan shark’s enforcers if she doesn’t come up with the money soon.

Just at the crux of this fraught situation, Hal receives a letter from a law firm, telling her that her grandmother, Hester Westaway, has died and that her presence is required at the funeral and subsequent reading of the will. She knows just enough about her mother’s family to realize that someone has made a mistake; but there are sufficient similarities in her background that cause her to grasp at the idea that she can pull off a deception and perhaps come into some funds that will help her out of her desperate straits. She scrapes together the last of her funds, buys a ticket to Porthleven, and sets out to collect “her” inheritance.

Haven’t we all imagined at some point that a long-lost legacy will arrive in the mail or via a phone call? That we will be pulled back at the last second from the brink of ruin by the generosity of a remote relative who turns out to have doted on us as a precocious three-year-old and has been generous in their bequest? I loved the entire set-up for this story, and Hal’s tentative but determined foray into a strange house filled with family that may or may not be hers.

The tale owes a lot to both Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: First of all, it takes place in Cornwall, scene of the bulk of du Maurier’s storytelling, and the creepy housekeeper definitely gives off an obsessive Mrs. Danvers vibe. The house itself is a gothic nightmare straight out of Christie, of cold, dark, dust-filled rooms reverberating with an unhappy past, and the Westaway family, though cordial on the surface, has obviously been greatly affected (and not in a good way) by their upbringing. It’s no coincidence that Hal feels the greatest affinity for the sole in-law in the bunch!

I have to say that the strong-willed, smart, and likeable character of Hal largely carried this book for me. I loved her back story, her personality, her profession, and her daring. The rest of the characters were, by comparison, made of cardboard, and some were outright cliché. They were okay as a backdrop for Hal, but it would have been nice if the only glimpses into their story had gone farther than a few incomplete and unsatisfying diary entries. None of them is overtly friendly, no one voluntarily supplies family history, and despite being surrounded by all these people, Hal has to solve her mystery through a not always compelling combination of research and subterfuge.

The thing is, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is not exactly a mystery, although there are mysterious elements to solve; it’s not entirely suspense, although it’s suspenseful; and the resolution is a bit telegraphed and not as exciting as it could have been. At several points in the story, it seems like the book doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be gothic horror, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, or a psychological thriller. But if you focus on the story as being Hal’s alone, and simply let yourself enjoy the atmospheric vibes, it ends up being a satisfying read. The integration of the tarot into the story made it special for me, as I have always had a fascination with both the artwork and the infused meaning of those cards. This is the second Ruth Ware book I have read, and although the other one was better conceived and executed, I believe I prefer this one based simply on the appeal of character.