Maybe the Best Suspense Novel This Year

The Child

By Fiona Barton

Fiona Barton, formerly a newspaper woman, with among her stints time at the hugely popular Daily Mail, probably wondered how she could top her blockbuster The Widow. Don’t know if you’ll think this tops that real gripper, but most certainly you’ll agree The Child is its equal.

Briefly, during a gentrification project, workers turn up the corpse of an infant, baby Alice, or as she comes to be known, The Building Site Baby. Kate Waters, crack reporter for the Daily Post, decides to do a small piece on the grim discovery. That squib gets noticed by two different women: Angela, who believes it is her baby stolen from her at the maternity hospital as an infant; and Emma, who begins to worry that questions will be asked and people will discover the horrible thing she did.

Kate, with the help of cub sidekick Joe, does the initial leg work on the case, before the police become involved. It explodes into a major story involving a nearly three-decade-old child abduction case (Angela), a broken home and apparent lunacy (Emma), and a ring of pedophiles (dastardly landlord and college prof). You’ll think you’ve figured out the case in relatively short order, but don’t get ahead of yourself, buddy. Barton is truly skillful in laying on the twists and turns.

She also, from personal experience, knows how police investigations and investigative reporters work. Her most critical skill, as she teaches Joe, is making people comfortable with her, of encouraging them to treat her as their friend. Naturally, this exposes her to a large degree of emotional involvement with people and their lives. It’s this characteristic that provides The Child a powerful emotional punch, particularly at the end.

You’ll also find the novel interesting for Barton’s treatment of the transition of print media to online. Joe, the young whippersnapper he begins as, learns a lot from her, as do all of us readers.

If you are in the mood for truly gripping suspense, get a copy of Barton’s latest. And then wonder with the rest of us, and herself: How will she top it next time? w/c

What If You Could Have 4 Lives?

4321

By Paul Auster

Lives You Could Have

Paul Auster explores in great detail the effects a change early on can make in a life. The subject is Archie Ferguson and the change is the burning down of his father’s appliance/furniture store. As Archie himself muses fifty or so pages in, “Such an interesting thought, Ferguson said to himself: to imagine how things could be different for him even though he was the same. The same boy in a different house with a different tree. The same boy with different parents. The same boy with the same parents who didn’t do the same things they did now.” The last line is the theme of the novel, a “what if” game played on what is at once a small and large field, these being one man’s life through some turbulent times, the 50s, 60s, and 70s. It’s an interesting thought for the very reason it is unoriginal: nearly everybody wonders what if at some point. Few, however, flesh things out in the extravagant detail you’ll find in 4 3 2 1.

Auster groups Archie’s four possible lives into seven chapters, dividing each chapter into four parts, Archie’s four lives. This can make for some reading challenges. As you might imagine, once you’ve read through a full chapter you have to pick up the thread of Archie’s first life again. Auster thankfully puts in small markers at the start of each to help you orient yourself. Just a guess here, but he’s also anticipated that some readers after the first chapter will decide to simplify things on their own by reading each life straight through. Not a bad strategy for keeping everything straight as Auster cobbles on a coda at the very end which sorts out the real and imagined. The only proviso here: you’ll want to read them in order, that is life one first, etc.

Prepare yourself for lives in great detail. Few of us probably are as introspective as the four Archies, even as a small child, since he is quite a precocious fellow. Archie delves deeply and in detail into home life, all school levels, sports, current events (assassinations, wars, elections, poverty, white flight, etc.), and particularly love and relationships, his own, his parents’, grandparents’, and friends’. No wonder the novel clocks in at 866 pages.

However, because Auster writes deftly, the whole thing moves along at a fairly rapid pace. So, don’t be put off by the massive paragraphs and the long winding sentences. They may appear intimidating, but you’ll find yourself gliding along without much trouble.

Will you like the novel and will you be willing to spend a considerable amount of time with it? You will if the idea of “what if” intrigues you. You will probably pause from time to time to consider your own multiverses. You certainly will if the time periods interest you. Auster does a remarkable job of hitting all the high and low points, a memory jogger for older readers and an introduction to interesting times for younger readers. And, finally, if you click with the fellow who will be with you every minute of the trip, Archie. w/c

A Beautiful Relationship

Suspect

By Robert Crais

It’s been awhile since we’ve read a Crais book, and we’re happy to see he’s lost none of his skill at writing a compelling tale, if this 2013 outing is indicative of his current work. What makes this effort so special is how he is able to portray the developing relationship between Officer Scott James and his K-9 corps dog Maggie. If you have any heart at all, any feeling for your fellow man and for beautiful, loyal, and determined dogs, you’ll find yourself growing misty-eyed in the final moments of the book.

Maggie is an ex-Marine dog. She suffers from the loss of her Marine handler killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, as well as PTSD and wounds in the attack. Officer James also suffers from PTSD and wounds received in a brutal shooting incident, as well as the loss of his partner. They come together at the LAPD canine training facility.

As we follow them learning about each other and developing a trusting relationship, we develop an attachment and affection for their partnership, and, in particular, for Maggie, the best friend a man could ever have. Our education about military and police canines, their almost incredible abilities and their unbreakable loyalty to their handlers, is the real strength of the novel. Crais does a good job of putting us into the mind of Maggie, so much so that by the end we feel as attached to her as Officer James does.

There’s not much more to say, except pick up a copy and discover a crime story with real heart. w/c

When a Novel Might be Better as a Series

The People We Hate at the Wedding

By Grant Ginder

For a novel trumpeted in the jacket copy as hilarious, you’ll find the humor sporadic and often deprecating, both self and towards others. But you would probably expect such from a cast of characters, mother Donna, deceased father Bill, son Paul, daughter Alice, and Donna’s daughter from a previous marriage Eloise, who are less than likable (except maybe for Eloise and her overly nice and supremely contented fiancee Ollie). Everybody has issues with each other; everybody has issues with themselves; everybody, except for mellow Ollie, is wildly neurotic. Imagine them together at Eloise’s wedding and you picture something riotously funny or riotously bloody. Regrettably, you’ll not get much of either in the end here. To boot, everything proves too predictable.

The story turns on a deeply held family secret kept by Donna about Paul and his father Bill to protect Paul from a harsh and painful truth, known only by one other person, Eloise. From this stems much of the anger, resentment, and neurotic behavior in the novel. Settings are L.A., St. Charles, IL (you don’t see this much in novels), Philadelphia, London and Dorset. The novel features some explicit sexual scenes not everybody will be happy to encounter, though they are critical to Paul’s story. And sorry to report, but Paul’s tale revolves around some pretty unfortunate gay stereotyping.

In its favor, this is the type of novel that could make a compelling cable or streaming limited series in the hands of the right producers and showrunner, perhaps, if we’re lucky, like Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which was very popular in print and on HBO. w/c

Terror Destroys a Small Town

‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King

Ever wonder what Bram Stoker would make of the industry that has sprung from his groundbreaking 1897 Dracula? Though not the first vampire novel, it proved to be the one that launched hundreds of sharp-fanged anti-heroes. It’s an industry and a character writers, film studios, and television have worked practically to death. Yet, we never seem to tire of the Count and his brethren.

Which brings us to Stephen King, the writer most will acknowledge as the modern master among masters of horror and the macabre. For his second outing, he chose vampires in a small Maine town, and readers, even now, are the luckier for it. You can say this about most of King’s early works, Carrie, The Shining, and The Stand (first half): it’s a masterwork of terror.

What makes ‘Salem’s Lot, as well as these others so appealing, appealing enough to read a second time years after your first reading? It boils down to small town life, ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events, clear writing, terrific pacing (at least in these early novels), and powerful, literal descriptions. King puts you in the situation and the action and because his characters are much like his readers, you can easily project yourself onto the pages. In short, he’s completely relatable.

You’ll find no better work among his pile of writing illustrating King’s strengths. Could there be a more representative American small town than the Lot? Don’t many small towns have a sinister house occupied, or once home to, the town curmudgeon (not a killer, for sure, but scary, especially in the eyes of children). The Lot has a rhythm to it, a way of living that stretches back years, a dull sameness that locals like and set their emotional clock by. Like any town, though, it’s not perfect bliss, or even close to blissful. It’s relatively poor. It’s filled with its share of misfits. It even has a town dump that many who grew up in small towns will recognize. Above all, everybody knows everybody else, maybe a virtue but which contributes to its succumbing to evil.

Even Ben Mears is a small town boy. He’s published a couple of books, true, but hasn’t achieved any kind of fame and no fortune. He returns to his roots to face a fear that has haunted him, and to get a really good book out of the experience. That fear resides in the old, abandoned Marsten House stilling atop a hill overlooking the Lot. Horrible things happened there long ago, long before when Ben was a boy.

Ben gets more than he bargained for. He gets his greatest fear multiplied a hundredfold in the form of Barlow, an ancient vampire come to establish residence in the Lot coincidental with Ben’s arrival. Poor Ben loses so much: a new love in the form of tragic Susan, new friends in the forms of Matt the high school teacher and Jim the doctor, the new novel he’s written deeply into, and most of all, any comfort and joy in living. Yet, with young Mark at his side, he does gain a new and pretty meaningful purpose in life as one who now can see behind the curtain of quotidian life, like that that the Lot enjoyed before Barlow’s arrival.

There’s one other characteristic of King’s writing that unfortunately ‘Salem’s Lot doesn’t have: stunningly memorable characters, among them religious lunatic Margaret White, rabid fan Annie Wilkes, pyromaniac “Trashcan Man,” the list is long. Vampire master Barlow could have been such a character, ancient, big, nasty, egotistical, and above all, wonderfully bombastic. It isn’t often said about novels, but ‘Salem’s Lot would have benefited immensely from deep background on Barlow. Nonetheless, ‘Salem’s Lot is still a heck of a powerful horror yarn. w/c

Wishing to Be Somebody Else

Homesick for Another World

Ottessa Moshfegh

Let’s face it. Nobody can be happy with their life, and even life in general, every minute of every day. You have permission to be unhappy, to have periods of melancholia. Wish you were somewhere else, or somebody else when you fall into a funk. Nothing wrong or unhealthy with any of this. But, divorce yourself from the present, obsess on what might have been, what your life really should be as opposed to what it is, carry it to the most extreme conclusion, as the characters in the final story, “A Better Place,” in Moshfegh’s collection do, and my friend, you have a serious problem. You might be a candidate for this collection of stories about dissatisfied people yearning for another world, a world, unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. If you consider yourself among the normal, you might find peeking into these fourteen lives and situations interesting. For, really, how weird can people be? Mighty weird in Moshfegh’s imagination.

The writing here can be riveting. The descriptions of ugliness and ugly features prove as fascinating as they are off putting. And as individual stories taken one or two at a time over time, they certainly can be intriguing and thoughtful. However, when gathered into a collection, they suffer from a sameness and dreariness, all sounding like the other, losing the uniqueness they probably did have when presented individually in the various publications in which they appeared previously. So, to enhance your enjoyment, or maybe to yank any pleasure from these stories, you might do best to read them at a pace of one or two a week. And prepare yourself to face up to not so much the dark side of life but its disappointment reduced down into a bunch of bitter drops, not so much seasoning, more like poison against the human spirit. w/c

Cheating with Christ

Today Will Be Different

By Maria Semple

The midlife crisis, isn’t wonderful fodder for screenwriters and novelists? Treatment can be hilarious or serious, or, as in Maria Semple’s new outing, a blending of both. Eleanor Flood Wallace is about to turn 50. She’s enjoyed a career as an animation director on a successful television show. She’s a woman of many opinions all of which come at the reader regularly, usually coated in humor.

She also has a very precocious little boy named Timby (credit autocorrect for it); he may be the funniest character in the novel. She has a wacky toy pooch, Yo-Yo (which describes Eleanor quite nicely). And she’s married to a very successful hand surgeon, Joe, who, among other things, is on contract with the Seattle Seahawks, and he’s a saint. And, oh yes, she lives in Seattle. Sounds ideal, but there wouldn’t be much of a novel if it were.

When she discovers that Joe’s staff thinks the family is off on vacation, she wonders if Joe’s throwing her over for another woman. Roll out the self-deprecation. Her search for an answer serves as the propulsive drive of the novel, mean to get you from A to B in a zig zag line that wends you through her life. Turns out it was an eventful one, filled with bad parenting, a stage mother, a beautiful sister whom she has a falling out with over the sister’s controlling socialite New Orleans husband, and her own feelings of insecurity and her general daffiness.

All this entertains for the first hundred pages or so, until it turns to tedium and Eleanor’s humorous wackiness disintegrates into something you want to escape. Really, you get tired of her. You think, Good for Joe. Who could deal with this daily?

If you persevere, however, you stagger into a clever ending, for dear Joe is having an affair, of sorts. But it’s with someone and a philosophy both rejected in their youth, and which is one shared thing among many differences. That’s got to, and does, hurt, just like getting there does. w/c