Tag Archives: suspense

Suspenseful Black-Eyed Susans

susansSixteen-year-old Tessie Cartwright was found naked and almost dead in a field of wild flowers, along with the corpses of the killer’s other victims, in shock and missing the memory of some crucial hours.  Evidence pointed to Terrell Goodwin, but it was Tessie’s testimony about her experience that convinced the jury to convict.  Terrell spends almost 20 years on death row, while Tessie buries deep the nagging thought that the monster who abducted her is still out there, targeting her and her teenage daughter.  Because if Terrell’s the monster, then who is tormenting her by planting black-eyed Susans under her window?

That doubt – and her inability to remember the crucial hours – is what leads Tessa to cooperate with Bill Hastings, Terrell’s attorney.  He’s making a last-ditch effort to investigate the case and save his client’s life.  And Tessa is making a last-ditch effort to unravel the defining mystery of her life.  Because her memory is that not all the Susans (as the girls were called) were dead.  In fact, she distinctly remembers talking with them as they lay beneath the cold earth.  And she still hears their voices in her head.

Author Julia Heaberlin‘s novel is her third, and it is assured, well-written, and packed with suspense. The perspective switches between Tessie, age 16, and present-day Tessa.  As Bill and his forensic expert colleague seek clues as to the real identity of the dead girls, Tessa tries with all her might to unpack her memories of the critical hours.  The solution, when revealed, is shocking.  Heaberlin packs just enough red herrings into the plot to keep the astute reader guessing till the end.

Less successful:  The last-minute arrival of character X to reveal all – and that character’s reasons for doing so – seems forced.  The concept behind the big reveal is excellent; I’d love to say more but don’t want to have to go all “spoiler alert” on you.   The execution, however, particularly the choice to suddenly give the reader several chapters from character X’s point of view, could be smoother.  And there’s a pretty big plot hole which is apparent on reflection.

I’m sure some readers will find my complaint  about the ending just so much nit-pickery, and overall, Black-Eyed Susans is definitely worth reading.  It kept me turning the pages.  The ultimate accolade?   I plan to read her first two books, Playing Dead and Lie Still.

Playdate not much fun.

Louise Millar‘s debut novel Playdate is the twisty story of three women:  Callie, a single mom of a health-challenged  daughter who is starting back to work after staying home during her daughter’s early childhood.  Suzy, a gorgeous stay-at-home mother of three with a sexy husband, plenty of cash, and perfectionistic ways.  And Debs, a former teacher, married after a long spinsterhood, who is working at the after-school program that Callie’s daughter attends.

Told in a close third person point of view from each of the women’s perspectives, the reader sees the world as each of the women see it.  However, Millar does withhold information, so we are left with the uneasy feeling that all may not be as it seems. Indeed, Callie is not a perfect mother, Suzy is not a loyal friend, and Debs is not mentally ill.

The plot is this:  Callie has an offer to go back to work in a responsible and creative position.  She’s been a stay-at-home mom, and has developed a BFF relationship with Suzy, who seems a little judgmental but ultimately there for Callie.  Fragile Rae, Callie’s daughter, likes school and it appears that she’ll be fine at an after-school program.  Enter Debs, who works at the after-school program.  She’s socially awkward and is hiding something from her past.  Then, things start to unravel.  After Rae has an accident after school, Callie becomes convinced that there’s a problem with Debs, questions whether she can continue working, and leans on Suzy for support.   Who is lying?  Is Rae in danger?  And if so, from whom?

Here’s what’s good about Playdate: Callie comes across very much the modern woman, pulled in multiple directions, and I enjoyed Callie’s challenges at work and empathized with her need to juggle.  Millar does a great job of keeping the reader engaged, and the suspense is very suspenseful.  The child in jeopardy aspect of the plot is handled well.  The relationship between Debs and her husband is shown to be a very strong and positive one.

Not so good about Playdate:   The reader really doesn’t have anyone to root for. Callie covers up some essential truths in order to use people.  She comes across as likable early on, but I couldn’t get over her fundamental duplicity. Spoiler alert!  Specifically, she becomes friends with and depends on Suzy for support – including financial support – despite the fact that her daughter’s biological father is Suzy’s husband, Jez.  Callie also keeps her ex-husband, who thinks he’s Rae’s father,  in the dark about this for financial and other reasons.  Ms. Perfection, Suzy, turns out to be a manipulative, lying nut job.  And the one person who is truly a good person, Debs, is presented as a neurotic mess and potentially a child abuser, through most of the novel.  It’s like a cross between a chick-lit novel and the Maury Povich show.

The result?  I was simultaneously biting my nails and slightly nauseated through the last 2/3 of Playdate.  Well-plotted, well-paced, and well-written, Playdate is nonetheless not a book that I would recommend to a friend.  However, things bode well for Louise Millar as an author, and I’d definitely read her next novel.

“Bad” no more… Lone Wolf

I’ve been reading Linwood Barclay‘s books in order.  The first two, Bad Move and Bad Guys, feature sci-fi/reporter Zach Walker in domestic mysteries with a tough guy edge.  The third Walker book in the series, Lone Wolf, breaks the pattern – no “bad” in the title!

The book differs in other ways, too.  It still has the “family in peril” vibe, but in this case, the family is Zach’s father and stepmother, whose peaceful life in the piney woods is threatened by a family of hooligans renting from Zach’s dad.  He’s slow to take action to evict them, and the sheriff in town – who looks oddly familiar – is similarly slow to question their story when a man is killed, ostensibly mauled by a bear but more likely the victim of the evil family’s vicious pit bulls.

Where the previous books were funny with a heavy helping of twisty plot and a dash of mayhem, Lone Wolf ratchets up the violence, introduces numerous plot lines with a multiplicity of characters, and pulls back on the funny.  Zach is not as quirky as in the previous two books… less personality, more action. The change-up at the end is more disconcerting than surprising.  Spoiler alert.  Stop reading now if you haven’t read Lone Wolf yet and are planning to do so!

Or, if you’re still reading, you find that yes, it’s true that the reason why Sheriff Orville looks so dang familiar is because he looks like Zach – he’s his half-brother!  This makes sense to Zach because he remembers a bad time in his parents’ marriage, when his mother took off for a period of time – she needed time to get over her husband’s infidelity.   The twist at the end is that Orville and Zach don’t share a father… they share a mother.  Saintly mom was evidently slutty mom. (Dead now, of course, and can’t speak for herself.)

So, all in all, changes in the series are not to my liking.  And of course this is one I bought on Kindle because it wasn’t available at the library!  Last thought:  if anyone can explain the title to me, please do so.  I have yet to figure out why the book is called Lone Wolf.  I’d have thought Bad Scene.   Or Bad Time.  Or Bad Family.