Christmas thriller

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.

The Good Sister

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.

Tangier melodrama

I just finished reading Tangerine, a novel of suspense by Christine Mangan, a first-time author, and I am struggling to put into words what I found compelling and also how the book ultimately failed in its task (for me, at least).

There was a lot of chatter in the blurbs about this being the next iteration of The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith, with Lucy understudying the role of Tom Ripley. But I think it is this central issue that caused the book, although somewhat engrossing, not to work for me. Ripley did all the things that he did because he was a sociopath. He presented, as did Lucy, as charmingly naive; but underneath it all, there was no empathy. He saw something he wanted, he saw what he would have to do to get it, he pondered the ways to achieve it, and then he took them on, however reprehensible and with whatever consequences. But in Tangerine, Lucy’s motivation is not so clear.

Lucy is obsessed with Alice—in love, she would probably say—and Alice, of higher caste and income than Lucy, has foolishly created a dream future for Lucy by carelessly promising that, after they graduate from Bennington, they will go together to Paris, possibly to stay, or perhaps traveling on to Spain and beyond. Lucy, in her obsession, takes this casual remark as a promise, one that she slowly comes to realize that Alice will fail to fulfill, once Alice becomes involved with other people and essentially abandons their one-on-one relationship. It is this failure of a dream that causes Lucy to become the ruthless driving force who alters Alice’s life; and it is only at that point in the book that she begins to resemble Mr. Ripley in her conscienceless manipulations.

That evolution somehow didn’t ring true for me. I see the similarities—Tom + Dickie with Marge as the outsider, and Lucy + Alice with Tom (and John) as the problem third wheel—but for some reason, it just didn’t feel the same. Perhaps one flaw that caused the disconnect is that Alice is such a wishy-washy character with so much baggage that she doesn’t act as a sufficient foil to show Lucy’s true colors. Everything seems to be lovely; then there are a couple of red flags that Alice confronts with confusion because she’s so unsure of her own mental state that she halfway believes she imagines them; and then everything goes to hell. As one writer on Goodreads said of the two, they are “ghosts of far more fascinating characters found in a Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson novel.” I tend to agree!

The author drew such a line between strong, decided Lucy and weak-willed Alice that at one point in this story I actually believed we were going to be subjected to a dissociative identity disorder type of thing, where Alice and Lucy turned out to be (two sides of) the same person. While I’m thankful that didn’t happen, if the author had the moxie to try to pull that off I would have given her respect. By contrast, the evolution of the two characters in the actual story just didn’t gel for me. The setting of Tangier, where the relationship reconnects and continues to the end, was a potent one, and some of the subsidiary characters, notably Youssef and, to a lesser extent, Aunt Maude, are compelling, but the central struggle seemed too diffuse—too much took place in the confines of each character’s mind and out of the other’s tangible presence for there to be true drama. There were great moments, scenes, but they didn’t connect enough to give me the story arc. Also, the author frustratingly introduces mysterious characters who show up at the door, deliver veiled threats, and never appear again. There’s nothing I dislike more than a red herring that flops around and doesn’t actually swim anywhere.

The most interesting part of the book, honestly, is its setting, which is telegraphed by the title. Tangier is portrayed vividly and tangibly, with description but also from the gut reactions of the characters themselves to its peculiar atmosphere. There is much made of the fact that some people, arriving in a place, instinctively recognize it as “home,” while others quickly realize that, no matter their inclination, the place will never be a good fit for them. I enjoyed all this scene-setting immensely, with its contrast between the hot, dry, dusty streets with the sun beating down that cause Lucy to revel, and Alice’s wistful memories of rolling hills of green, and winter by the fire at Bennington that contrast so forcefully with her present surroundings. Tangier, a bit lawless, innately spontaneous, a little dangerous, definitely furthers the ruthless actions taken within its confines. But a gripping setting is not enough to carry the action.

I can’t honestly pan this book; it’s fairly exciting in parts, and kept me reading to find out what happened. But if you have never read any of Highsmith’s Ripley books, I’d definitely give preference to those.

A guilty secret

Sharon Bolton’s latest, The Pact, capitalizes on a theme we have seen before, in everything from I Know What You Did Last Summer, the teen thriller by Lois Duncan, to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That doesn’t make it any less impactful, however—especially in the hands of a master of psychological fiction.

Five entitled young people and their one friend on a scholarship are spending their summer vacation (while awaiting their final A level marks that will determine their future at University) hanging out together, indulging themselves in drink, drugs, and indolence. The various effects of this provoke a dare game in which they all pile into a car in the wee hours of the morning and drive the wrong way between two ramps on a motorway (freeway). Each of them in turn has done it, with no real consequences but with some near misses, but when the final person’s nervous driving leads to tragedy, all the six can dwell on in that moment is how it will impact their futures should their wrongdoing come to light.

Amidst turmoil, hysteria, and guilt, accusations are made and fingers are pointed as they all seek a plan to protect themselves. Finally Megan, the scholarship girl, offers to take the fall—to claim she was driving by herself and that she alone was responsible. In return, she asks that when she is done serving her term in prison, each of the others will owe her a substantial favor. Caught up in the giddy relief that only one of them will suffer, the others all agree to her terms without questioning her motivation. They craft their story carefully, not realizing that outside circumstances will substantially affect the case against Megan; she ends up being sentenced to 20 years, instead of the three to five they expected.

Twenty years later, the others—Talitha, Felix, Xav, Amber, and Daniel—have all made significant achievements in their careers, as well as most of them accumulating spouses, children, and wealth. Meanwhile, Megan has served her full sentence and has suffered injuries while imprisoned that have left her physically and perhaps mentally damaged. Now comes the reckoning, the part where Megan gets to name her terms and the others must comply. As they each contemplate the guilt over having shunned and ignored her during her incarceration, the secret shame they feel at wishing she’d not been released, and the fear of the price she will exact, the tension builds.

Although the story is involving and well told—in both the present and the past—it is the character studies that make this book so compelling. Sharon Bolton is so good at creating unlikeable characters and then causing the reader to hope they get what they deserve while simultaneously pondering how he or she would have reacted in their place! As each of the five considers Megan’s admittedly outrageous requests and flails around crafting a response, you realize it’s just a matter of time until someone snaps. But that realization is far from the result of knowing who it will be, which is the trick that keeps you reading to the end.

Bolton has written another gem of a thriller that first defines and then shreds the concepts of friendship and loyalty in the face of unbearable tension. While it’s not my favorite of her books (because of the plot, less original than most), it’s definitely worth a fingernail-gnawing evening or three!