Thursday, August 24, 2017

A Most Disorienting Read

The cat under the front porch was at it again. Scratching at the slab of wood that echoes through the hardwood floors of my bedroom. Sharpening its claws, marking its territory—relentless in the dead of night.

That is how The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda,
today’s recommended summer-reading-super-suspense-novel begins. This story, with its many facets, its many faces, was immensely satisfying. First, there are the two friends (Leah and Emmy) who move to a new town and decide to room together. Then, there is the reason Leah is here in the first place (What was that horrible thing that happened in her old job?). Then, there is the colleague who Leah is sure is harassing her. And more. There is much more which is revealed as the story unfolds slowly.

In a nutshell, Leah had to leave Boston and her career as journalist after an article she wrote goes horribly wrong. She calls on an old friend Emmy, to come be her roommate in a rural Pennsylvania town where she has secured a teaching job. She needs someone to help her get her life back from that horrendous experience, and what better person than her strange friend, Emmy?

Here is where the whole thing gets disorienting in a way that makes you stop, blink, and shake your head as you read it. A woman who looks a lot like Leah is assaulted and left for dead down by the river. Shortly after, her roommate Emmy disappears. Leah and police investigator Kyle become close, as he helps her unravel what happened. It's all pretty straightforward. Or is it?

A large part of the novel becomes a case of, who do you believe? Even Kyle has doubts. He wants to believe her, but who is this supposedly good friend Emmy? There is no record of her anywhere—in any police data base that Kyle can locate. Emmy didn’t even have a cell phone. What young woman doesn’t carry a cell phone these days?

Why was Leah forced to leave her previous employment? Why is she accusing a fellow teacher of harassing her? Is Leah the problem? What’s with her former best friend and boyfriend? Why the restraining order? All of these questions are answered very, very slowly, very deliciously as the story progresses.

The unfolding of the story is almost disorienting. It got to the point that I would have to stop, think. WHAT did I just read? What is happening? No spoilers here, but the book is a very satisfying summer read.

Also—and this is important to me—the writing is excellent. Here are a few examples:

And then Emmy came along while I was this stripped away version of a person. So was it strange that I felt her in my skin? She was there when it re-formed. She existed inside the sharper edges I erected.

And, you can almost feel this version of winter:

The chapped lips, the red noses, the dry skin around our knuckles, and the way the sweaters itch across our collarbones. How you want nothing more than to stay in. The things you do to stay warm.

I began this blog with the first lines of The Perfect Stranger, the lines after which, I knew I would enjoy this book.

If you are a reader of I Like It, you know that first lines matter to me. First lines draw me in. First chapters draw me in. Just out of curiosity and because I’m a writer myself, I Googled “How not to begin a story.” The first thing that popped up was this Writer’s Digest article.

It suggests not beginning with a dream, an alarm clock buzzing, too little dialogue, or opening with dialogue. Pretty good advice, I would say. I Googled further to read that a whole lot of literary agents and writing instructors suggest not using a prologue. Hmm. The Perfect Stranger begins with a prologue. 

As a writer, I sort of pay attention to this advice, but as a reader it flits off me like fine fine feathers in the wind. If the word “prologue” disgruntles you, just put a sticky note over the word “Prologue” and pretend it’s "Chapter One," and then proceed.

So yes, put this book high on your summer reading list.

Next time: The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Invited to a Party? Beware!

Another Thursday morning, another great summer suspense recommendation. Today, the novel I am recommending is In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware. I read this book in the space of a couple of days, so enthralled was I.

Here is how the story begins:

I am running.

I am running through the moonlit woods, with branches ripping at my clothes and my feet catching in the snow-bowed bracken. Brambles slash at my hands,. My breath tears in my throat, It hurts, Everything hurts.

So begins the journey of Leonora who casually accepts the invitation to a “hen party.” An old friend she hasn’t seen in years is getting married. Why is she invited? She parted company with this “friend” many years ago, and it wasn't under the greatest of circumstances. Why is she being called now? Should she leave her comfortable but solitary existence in London to go to this party way out in the countryside? But her curiosity is piqued. The party is being held in a huge, modern glass-windowed house. Who wouldn’t be intrigued?

Persuaded by a mutual friend, she packs up and they drive there together.

After that, of course, the strange things start happening.

Two days later, she wakes up in a hospital bed with no memory of the entire weekend. She can only piece together bits and pieces. The book deftly moves from past to present as Leonora puts together what happened to her.

Yes, I suppose these are pretty timeworn conventions in the psychological suspense genre—amnesia, old secrets, isolation (in this case, a deserted house in the woods), “ghosts” in the woods (whether real ghosts in the form of a horror novel, or in this case, the “ghosts” of past secrets), a storm, and of course a murder. The book is replete with quirky characters—the quirkiest is the friend who wants everything to be “perfect” and even when things are falling apart will go to to any lengths to make sure this is so.

These “conventions” are used over and over, and yet for beach reads, we never tire of them. Or, at least I never do. Bring on the amnesia and the Stephen King-like quirky characters!

Here’s a fascinating article in Psychology Today about why we enjoy reading suspense novels so much.

The author suggests that we like the intellectual challenge—the old “figuring out the mystery puzzle” but in a psychological suspense it’s more than just figuring out “whodunnit”, it’s coming up with why. It’s connecting past "ghosts" to present reality.

The article also suggests that these kinds of novels are usually so engrossing, so captivating, that “nothing else has a chance of sneaking into our minds, thus giving us a break from everyday worries.”

And with things the way they are in the world, I think we DO need this break. Agreed?

So, take the suggestions that I’ve offered over these past number of months, and enjoy your thrillers.

NEXT TIME: The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda