in which Alison Kent winkles a confession out of me

I guess I have to thank Alison Kent for her confession because I feel compelled to follow her example. I’m sure I’ll feel better after I admit to all the books I’ve preordered from Amazon. So here we go, in no particular order:

The Serpent’s Tale (Ariana Franklin); Change of Heart (Jodi Picoult); Evermore (Lynn Viehl); The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (Joshilyn Jackson); Duma Key (Stephen King); Dreamers of the Day  (Mary Doria Russell); Phantom Prey (John Sandford); Nothing to Lose (Lee Child); Elvis Cole untitlted (Robert Crais);  LA Outlaws (T Jefferson Parker).

Heart Sick, Chelsea Cain (review & giveaway)

Update: The reading went very well, but it was crowded. Chelsea grew up here, and half the audience was made up of her old teachers and classmates. It felt like a reunion — a happy one. I’ll leave this drawing for the signed copy of her book open for another couple days.

On a related matter: I still haven’t heard from the two people who won the paperback edition of Queen of Swords. If I don’t hear from them by Tuesday, I’ll drawn two other names.

Note: giveaway details at the end of this post.

There are a number of authors out there who write crime/thrillers really well. Some of my favorites are John Sandford, Lee Child and Stephen Hunter. Laura Lippman and Thomas Harris are also favorites, and they are by far the best stylists, by which I mean their prose is as impressive as their plotting and characterization. The first three are superior strorytellers, but with a minimalist approach to prose.

There are many authors out there who write crime/thrillers that don’t work — at least for me. These are usually novels that derive from the standard murder-serial killer-care worn detective model. Sometimes these authors have a three or even six great novels in a series, but then they lose the thread. However, if the books have sold, they will usually continue writing. I’m sure you can think of some names that go in this list.

[asa book]0312368461[/asa] I pick up a new crime/thriller author with some trepidation. Willing to be surprised, certainly, but not very hopeful. There aren’t many Laura Lippman’s out there. Then the day before yesterday I picked up Chelsea Cain’s Heart Sick.

The best thriller writers are the ones who don’t tell you everything, but let you figure out some things for yourself. They also avoid stereotypes, and make the primary characters stand out. Cain does everything right in this novel, to the extent that I sometimes stopped reading to marvel.

This is the story of Archie Sheridan, a Portland, Oregon detective and Gretchen Lowell, who is in prison and will be there for the rest of her life for a series of very disturbing torture-murders. Archie, who was the lead detective on the task force looking for the serial killer is also Gretchen’s last victim. He is the only one to survive, despite his horrific treatment, but not because the police burst into the room where he’s being held. The circumstances of his long, ten day captivity and Gretchen’s decision to call an ambulance and turn herself in are given to us in small chunks, while the primary plot is evolving.

Archie visits Gretchen in prison every Sunday. The alleged reason is that she doles out information about the burial spots of her victims a crumb at a time, and only to Archie. The real reason is that Archie cannot shake himself loose of her — not in a sexual way, but for reasons far more complex and interesting.

After a two year recovery, Archie, addicted to pain killers, comes back to the Portland police department to head up a new serial killer task force. This one takes young girls, rapes and murders them, and leaves them to be found. At the same time, Archie agrees to let a journalist shadow him, with the goal of her writing a four part investigative piece about him, the hero cop. Susan Ward knows this assignment can make her career, but she is as vulnerable around Lowell as Archie is.

Cain does a masterful job of tying the different threads together in a way that surprised me. The rarest kind of surprise, too, when my urge is to read the book from the beginning right away, to see what clues I missed.

Coincidentally, Chelsea Cain comes from the town where I live, and tonight she’s reading at our local independent, Village Books. Such a coincidence needs to be acknowledged, so I am giving away a signed first edition of Heart Sick, along with one of my own signed novels, to some lucky person whose name I pull at random from the comments to this post. If you’d like to tell us whether you read thrillers, and which authors you prefer, that would be interesting — but not necessary. Just throw your name in the hat, if you like.

I have the feeling that Chelsea Cain will be a great success, so a signed first edition of her first novel is a great thing to have, even if you’re not so much a fan of thrillers.

book book book goose

We have to go out of town for a couple days. Nobody’s dead or dying, just some business we need to take care of. I’ll be back Wednesday night.

In the meantime, a few words about a few books:

The Heart-Shaped Box, Joe Hill

This is a very effective, evocative thriller/horror type story with a lot of interesting twists. The main characters: a 50-something hard core rock star, his Goth girlfriend, his ex-exgirlfriend (who committed suicide after he sent her packing), and a really nasty ghost who arrives on the rockstar’s doorstep in the form of a dead man’s suit. The rockstar bought the suit in an on-line auction, and on a whim; he collects oddities, and the idea of buying a haunted suit appealed to him.

Except then it didn’t. The novel takes off fast, no long backstory or build up. There are touches that made my heart beat faster, in particular phone calls from people who should not be making phone calls. I think this really got to me as I have recurring dreams that are somewhat similar.

It’s hard to keep up the pace when you start off with a bang, but Hill mostly manages to do that. The climactic scene and the resolution come across as a bit stilted, as if Hill wrote himself into a corner and had to do some quick stepping to find a way out.

The final chapter really surprised me. It seems at first like a typical epilogue, what happens and how, but then an earlier character shows up at the door. I read this very carefully, thinking that maybe Hill was setting up a sequel, but when all was said and done, I think it was something much more subtle that he was trying to accomplish — and he succeeded.

Sometime soon I’m going to write about horror novels more generally, how they work for me or don’t, and why they are too much of a challenge for me to try to write.

City of Shadows, Ariana Franklin

I’m half way through this novel, which hooked me hard in the first few pages. It’s set in pre WWII Berlin (a setting and time I have always liked since I saw the film version of Cabaret and then went out to find Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, the source of the original stage play). I am finding a lot to admire about the character of Esther — a Russian refugee with terrible scars and a past to match. There’s a good mystery in this novel. I haven’t figured out yet what’s going on.

The Blade Itself, Marcus Sakey

I really love this genre, have I ever mentioned that?

This is a first novel, and here’s what Lee Child (the brain behind be-still-my-heart Jack Reacher) said: “like vintage Elmore Leonard crossed with classic Dennis Lehane.” I have to admit that I started reading with a good dose of scepticism, because who can live up to that? But it seems that maybe Child was right. I’m still thinking on it.

And the new Joe Pike novel is out. If you put me in a room with Joe Pike and Jack Reacher, I’d call that an embarrassment of riches.

reading between the lines

I generally avoid reviews, but yesterday I did come across one for Queen of Swords at the Romantic Times Book Reviews site written by Kathe Robin. ((Reviewer Kathe Robin has been working for Romantic Times for something like twenty years; her favorite historical is apparently Gone with the Wind. Which probably explains why she doesn’t like my stuff.))

RT has been pretty kind to the Wilderness novels as they’ve come out, and as I like romance novels and romance readers, that means a lot to me. But there is something in the QoS review that has had me thinking:

You’ll enjoy immersing yourself in their sometimes predictable soap opera world and glory in their triumph over tragedy.

Anybody who has to write recommendations for employees or students is familiar with the subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) coded language when you don’t want to come out and say something negative. When I was reading applications to the graduate programs at the University of Michigan I saw a good number of such letters. For example (and I’m making this up):

Mr. Smith is very dedicated to his work. He never missed a class or a deadline, and he listened closely to constructive criticism.

To me this says: the guy’s heart is in the right place, he’s a hard worker but he just doesn’t get the basics, no matter how much time I spent with him.

So now back to the quote from the RT review. There are a couple of very loaded phrases there, specifically predictable and soap opera. Let’s look at these separately.

Predictable is one of those words that is positive only in a limited way. You want the person who delivers your newspaper every morning to be predictable. You want your accountant, your dentist, your bus to be reliably predictable. But predictable is never used as a positive in book reviews. It’s a kind of all-purpose meh, that passive agressive sound you make when you’re irritated.

The truth is, most fiction is predictable in at least a couple ways. You can predict that a romance novel will have a resolution that makes the primary couple happy. You can predict that the detective in a hard-boiled series will clobber the bad guy in the end. You can predict that if Stephen King puts a pie in a story, it will be a strawberry pie. You can predict that the novels that win certain literary prizes will not have happy endings. Thus, predictable is one of those terms that says: there were things about this novel I didn’t like, some turns the author took that didn’t sit right with me. But it would take a lot of time and energy to sort that all out and tell you about it, so here: predictable.

In a historical romance, what would be the opposite of predictable? One possibility: the main character dies on the last page, which pretty much rules out a happy ending. But then it wouldn’t be a historical romance, anyway. In a crime-novel series such as Lee Child’s wonderful Jack Reacher novels, unpredictable would have to involve something like Jack finding religion and enrolling in a seminary. Or Jack coming out of the closet. These things would make the novels less predictable, but they would also ruin all the work Lee Child has put into establishing Jack’s character and m.o.

Soap opera isn’t passive or muted, it’s plain negative. Many people love soap operas and can provide lots of solid reasons for this affinity, but in a book review that uses the term brings with it a whole slew of less than wonderful associations: contrived, repetitive, lurid plots; silly complications; iffy dialog; over the top melodrama, shallow characters. It is as pejorative a term as bodice ripper, which is shorthand for a love story set in the past, of primary interest to women So Ms Robin was out to let blood. She really did not like Queen of Swords, but she pulled out this coded phrase to say so.

Here’s what I wish: that reviewers would drop the shorthand. Instead of predictable or bodice ripper or soap opera, write a sentence that gets to the heart of the problem, the reason the story didn’t work for you. That would be a useful review, for potential readers and for the author, too.