Posts Tagged ‘mystery/thriller’

After reading and really enjoying Sager’s first novel Final Girls, I was eager to check out his latest book, The Last Time I Lied, when I found out about it. It helped that the protagonist was a young woman with a dark past (my favorite kind of character to work with) and the story combined an old horror trope with some of the new thriller-type storytelling that we’ve seen in novels like Gone Girl and The Woman in the Window, as well as in Sager’s last book. What more could I ask for? Excited, I downloaded the audio book before the New Year, and started listening.

The Last Time I Lied follows Emma Davis, a New York City artist who is invited back to Camp Nightingale as an art instructor for its first summer in fifteen years. One problem: Fifteen years ago when Emma was a camper at Camp Nightingale, her three bunkmates went missing and were never found. This incident has haunted Emma all through her teens and adulthood, and she decides to go back to see if she can’t finally put the past to bed and maybe even find out what happened to her friends. Weaving between the past and the present, Emma arrives at camp and finds very little is as it seems, and gets caught up in a web of mystery, one with her old bunkmates at the center of it, and which threatens to entrap her and the current crop of campers inside.

One thing I loved about this story is that the camp setting and the camp reminded me of my own camper days. Yeah, my camp was co-ed and Jewish in nature and the one in the book is a secular all-girls camp, but the amount of swearing, the hormones and the differing personalities that sometimes get along and sometimes clash kind of brought me home. But beyond that, this novel is just as twisty as Final Girls was. Every moment you think you know what’s happening or what’s happened, the story throws you for a loop and introduces new information that makes you rethink everything. I was only able to guess a couple of those twists out of all of them, and given that I’m not normally very good at doing that for most mysteries,

I also felt a lot of connection with Emma herself. She’s a very well-developed character, and I understood how the events of the past affected her in the present (I’ve been there too, though nowhere as severe). But you also see how caring she is, and how that caring makes her want to seek out the truth and to protect those around her. She’s a great example of a protagonist for this sort of story, and I hope I can learn from reading her story to write those sorts of characters in my own stories.

A few things did stick out for me with this story. Remember those twists I was able to guess? Well, at times said twists did feel a bit obvious, so the emotional response at their reveal wasn’t as strong as it could’ve been. At least for me. For others, it could be different. Also, there’s this subplot involving a relationship between Emma and another major character she has history with, not all of it good. And while that subplot did add some drama to the story, I didn’t like how it concluded. Without spoiling anything, after everything that occurs in the novel, I find the hints as to the direction the relationship may go in the future hard to believe.

But all in all, I really enjoyed The Last Time I Lied. It’s a twisty story with plenty of surprises and great characters that play off each other in all the best ways. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.3. Sign up and dive right in for a great thrill ride.

I’m looking forward to Sager’s next novel, Lock Every Door, when it comes out this summer. And if you read Final Girls or The Last Time I Lied, you will be too.

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There’s a certain era of British history that writers write about maybe more than the medieval era. This era witnessed unprecedented growth and change for the British empire, as well as many of the greatest contributions to literature in the past three hundred years. Not to mention a whole lot of material for bodice rippers and horror stories.

I’m talking about the Victorian era. Named, rather obviously, after Queen Victoria, who sat on the British throne from June 1837 until January 1901. This has long been an era of interest to authors of a number of different genres, as well as among the general populace. Every year, hundreds of works of fiction come out set in that era: novels and short stories, movies, TV shows, comic books. We also have at least a couple of new books on any given topic of the era, and there are Victorian enthusiasts all over the world who research that age like crazy and even like to dress up as Victorians.

But what is it about the Victorian era that entrances people? Why do so many authors visit this age to write?* Well, I have a few guesses as to why that is:

  • The romance and glitz of the era. I think this is our first association with the Victorian age. I don’t know where or when this association popped up, but it’s the main reason. More than any other reason, there’s a romanticism to that age. Perhaps it might have something to do with the number of famous novels that came out during that era. A number of them have romance as an important plot or subplot. And as many of these books have endured the test of time, they’ve colored our associations of that age.
    Which brings me to the next point:

  • The literature. While I’m not the biggest fan of the Victorians’ writing style (racism aside, if he weren’t a halfway decent writer, I’d give up on Lovecraft for taking too much after them), it’s undeniable that many of the authors from that age left quite a mark on our modern literature. We still read Charles Dickens in classrooms across the world, and there are countless adaptations of A Christmas Carol out there. The Bronte sisters have all created works that have been held up as timeless romances for generations of readers. And as my good friend Angela Misri will tell you, no character has become more synonymous with the word “detective” than Sherlock Holmes. Truly the literature of the age has had an effect on our view of it.
  • An era of widespread change. Victorian Britain went through an amazing number of changes during Victoria’s reign. The most obvious, of course, was this was the age of the Industrial Revolution. Factories and manufacturing became the hub of the economy, and millions moved to the cities to find work. This change also contributed to a number of new work practices, as well as contributing to the overcrowding of cities and the widening gap between the rich and the poor that we still see today. This was also when Britain spread its empire across the world and into new territories, including parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
    But there were other changes. For example, who was allowed to vote was widened, women gained many more rights, and education became available to the lower classes. And that’s just scratching the surface of the number of changes that occurred while Victoria was on the throne.

And of course, Jack the Ripper’s the perfect embodiment of the age’s dark side.

  • Victorian Britain had a dark and dirty underbelly. While most of us associate the era with glitz and romance, there’s a darker side to Queen Victoria’s age. Poverty was widespread, and many people struggled to make ends meet. Women often had to turn to prostitution just to get a bite to eat or a place to sleep for the night. Many turned to alcohol or opium to numb their troubles. This was the background that allowed Jack the Ripper to hunt down those prostitutes.
    On top of that, medicine, cosmetics, and foods were more likely to kill out of you than help you. Opium or arsenic in your gout cure, lead in your foundation, poor refrigeration and rat droppings in your meat. Hell, your clothes could choke you to death and the dyes could stain your skin for months. People bathed only once a week, and the rest of the time they used heavy perfumes to mask the smell. And if you lived in London, you could expect mud and shit to line the roads rather than bricks!
    And God help you if you had a mental illness. Or a woman who wanted anything more than being a dutiful wife and mother. You could get locked up and have cold water dumped on your head from great heights while doctors came up with all sorts of crazy reasons for why you were mad. Common reasons include not being religious enough, having faulty menstruation, or masturbating.
    Yeah, you laugh, but imagine having to live through it. Pretty nasty, right? It was even worse if you were Irish. The Irish potato famine was going on around this time, and let me tell you, the folks in Parliament could’ve done a lot more to help out with that.
  • It lends itself to many genres. This is probably the biggest reason of all: it’s adaptable to many stories. Historical fiction, obviously, but you’ll find the Victorians appearing in many different kinds of stories. Romances are often set in that world, but also science fiction (steampunk especially), horror stories (Gothic and ghost stories especially, and some cosmic horror too), fantasies (especially ones with fairies or little girls falling down rabbit holes) and of course, mysteries and thrillers.

All these and more are why the Victorians enjoy such staying power in our media. It’s a perfect storm of factors for making a time period not only endure in literature, but give it a special cast that makes it interesting to the writer and average person alike.

I actually first fell in love with the Victorians while in college. I read a manga set in Victorian England, and while it was heavy on the romance and glitz, it got me interested. I’ve kept reading since then, and found out quite a bit more. And seeing as during my research, I’ve come up with more than a few ideas for stories, all that research will definitely come in handy.

If you would like to dive into the Victorian world and learn a bit about it, here are my recommendations:

If you want a good intro to Victorian England, this might be a good gateway drug for it.

  • Emma by Kaoru Mori. In no way related to the novel by Jane Austen, this historical romance manga was my first real introduction to the Victorian period. Beautiful art and a simple yet engaging story.
  • Victorian Britain from The Great Courses. Narrated by Professor Allitt of Emory University, this series of lectures is a great overview of the period for the average visitor.
  • The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumbelow. You want to know the most about the most notorious serial killer in history and cut through all the rumor and bullshit? This is the book for you.
  • How to Be a Victorian by Ruth Goodman. You want to know what the average life of a Victorian was like? From rich to poor, this is the book for you.
  • Victoria: A Life by A.N. Wilson. A friend from college sent this to me as a birthday present. It’s a rather eye-opening look at Queen Victoria’s life and reign.
  • Unmentionable by Therese O’Neill. Want to know all about Victorian bathroom habits, and the stuff they don’t talk about in the bodice rippers or polite society? You will laugh yourself silly with this one. Trust me, I just finished it yesterday, I would know.

Well, I’ve about talked your ear off on this age. But can you see why? It’s a fascinating era, and it’s one that’s going to continue to show up in fiction for years to come (especially if I can write a good story or two in it). And it’s amazing how just one woman’s reign, the first in centuries in her country that nearly never happened (seriously, read how she became heir to the throne. It’s insane!), has endured as much as it had. Whether romantic and shiny or dark and seedy, there’s a story in this era just for you.

Do you enjoy or write about Victorian England? Why? Why do you think it’s so popular?

What media do you recommend for anyone wanting to learn about the era?

*I’m not suggesting, by the by, that this age is visited more than any other. One needs only look at the breadth of literature to see that storytellers are drawing from all of known history and even from dark prehistory to tell stories. I just chose Victoria’s reign because that one has special importance to me, as you can tell.

You know, I’ve never reviewed a proper Stephen King story on this blog before. I’ve reviewed plenty of adaptations of his work, but never any of his actual stories. Probably because I’ve either gotten to them too late and so much time has passed that doing a review seems silly (which is true with the vast majority of his bibliography) or I didn’t feel there was enough to talk about to actually write a decent review (such as Gwendy’s Button Box, co-written with author Richard Chizmar). So I’m glad I’m finally able to review one of his books here. And this one is something else: it’s his latest novel, The Outsider.

The Outsider follows Ralph Anderson, a detective in the small city of Flint City, Oklahoma. The novel opens with Ralph and his fellow officers arresting Terry Maitland, a local teacher and boys’ baseball coach who is beloved by Flint City, for the horrific murder of a young boy. The state’s case seems ironclad: there’s not only eyewitnesses, but a ton of physical evidence linked back to Maitland. But soon after the arrest, evidence arises to cast doubt on Maitland’s guilt, and it’s just as ironclad. The contradiction in this case leads to a domino effect as Anderson and his allies try to figure out if the beloved Coach Maitland is hiding a darker personality, or if someone else, someone darker and worse, is at large in the town.

Now before I go into my review, let me just say that this book shares a few characters in common with King’s Mr. Mercedes trilogy, and contains a few spoilers. So if you haven’t read those books yet and would like to be surprised, probably hold off on this book until you’ve read those.

So I have to say, I came away very satisfied with this story. I like how King starts out with this novel seeming like a regular thriller-mystery: he shows the arrest, switching between the action and then showing interviews and documents from the investigation. The Outsider continues in this vein for a little while, but then goes in a different direction that defies your expectations so far. From there it develops into a compelling and strange read with some great characters. I especially liked Holly Gibney, who comes from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy. She’s neuro-atypical, like myself, but is shown to be an integral part of the investigation and makes certain leaps that, without her, the other characters might never be able to. It’s a very real portrayal of someone with disabilities, and I related to Holly on a number of levels. I love those sorts of portrayals of neuro-diverse people in fiction, and I hope to see more in the future.

But probably the novel’s greatest strength is just how hard it is to put down. King takes mystery, the strange, great characters, and much more to make a read that’s hard to put down. Normally I’m able to restrain myself to reading during my lunch break or on weekends, but this novel was so good, I found myself reading it late into the evening at times (which helped me to get to this review today).

That being said, The Outsider does have its issues. One of the biggest ones is that we’ve seen a lot of the concepts used and explored in the book in other King novels, and frankly done better there. I won’t say what, but they’re pretty obvious, and every time they came up, I kept thinking to myself, “This feels like a lighter/duller version of insert-story-name-here.” That, and I felt that the climax could’ve been a bit more epic. It was decent, but I felt it was hampered by too much exposition on the parts of the characters and the story’s villain, who is humanized a little too much (that makes more sense if you’ve read the book). Which, unfortunately, lowers the terror factor with a creative villain that could be as scary as some of King’s other famous villains. I was disappointed about that.

Overall, The Outsider is an entrancing and powerful read, subverting your expectations and leaving you wanting more. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving it a 4.6. Check it out, and get sent down a mine shaft full of the strange and the unsettling.

That’s all for now, my Followers of Fear. I’ve got my own novel to work on, so I’m going to get on that this evening. Until then, pleasant nightmares!

Last week I had a dream that started pleasantly and ended up being kind of nightmarish: it involved me and a friend of mine from high school navigating an area with lots of rivers and creeks on surfboards. We were looking for a mythical golden treasure trove that many had searched for and failed. We’d heard the treasure we were looking for was cursed, but we went searching for it anyway, because nothing bad has ever come from seeking and finding cursed objects. Somehow we found the treasure where so many others had failed, split it up between us, and go home. However, soon after that, weird stuff starts happening: things move on their own, the faces on the coins change shape, and that’s just the start of our problems. Well before it gets really bad though, my friend and I realize that we have to return the treasure to where we found it.

At some point, someone in the dream says I could write a story about what’s happened to us. To which I replied, “Someone already did. It’s called Pirates of the Caribbean.”

After we agree to take the treasure back, I woke up. It didn’t take me long to figure out the main message of the dream (besides the fact that I can point out when my situation resembles a famous film in my dreams). You see, the night before I’d taken a swipe at starting the fifth draft of Rose, based on my publisher Castrum’s comments and suggestions. I got about a page in, and I hit a metaphorical roadblock. I couldn’t figure out how to advance. So I ended up going to bed not sure how to move further in editing this novel while at the same time integrating my publisher’s suggestions (many of which I agree with and think could elevate the quality of the novel).

That dream was my subconscious giving me a rather creative presentation of my doubts and anxieties regarding the editing and publishing process for Rose: that signing with a publisher was a really bad idea, that there’s nothing I’ll be able to do to make this novel publishable, that even if I somehow get it released, it’ll suck and anybody who reads it will leave bad reviews. A dark side to achieving my dream and finding a publisher, represented expertly by cursed gold.*

And then on Saturday, I tried again. And it went extremely well. I got thirteen out of sixteen pages in that chapter done. Yesterday, I got the last three pages done, plus all eleven of the next chapter (and while taking in a double feature on the Blu-Ray Player in the afternoon). And then today, I got another chapter done within a couple of hours. That’s an average of a chapter a day! Take that, conscious and subconscious fears involving working with a publishing process.

Obviously, these are still early stages of the fifth draft, and I’m going to encounter moments where I’m not sure what to write or how to integrate a suggestion from the publisher. Luckily though, my publisher has been great about answering any questions I have (thank God they don’t see me as a pushy American) and offering feedback to my ideas on how to integrate their suggestions. And with these last three chapters, I’ve been able to move forward mostly on my own. And with time, I’m sure I can get through the rest without trouble, and well before May 16th. I just have to keep being creative and persevere.

Obviously, doubts about what I’m doing and where I’m going will plague me throughout my writing career from here on out. I’ve passed a new turning point in my career, and it’s a whole new playing field from here on out. But the next time I feel those worries start to get to me, I’ll remember the dream about the cursed gold, and the productive weekend that followed. And I’ll just keep editing through my doubts.

And while I still have your attention, I’d like to give a shout out to my good friend and fellow novelist at Castrum, Matt Williams. He just finished writing his novel The Jovian Incident, Book Two of the Formist series, and will hopefully have it out later this year. I can’t wait to read it, as I really enjoyed the first book, The Cronian Incident, which currently holds a 4.7 out of 5 on Amazon based on 12 reviews. If you would like to read some hard-boiled detective fiction in a futuristic universe, this series may be the one you’re looking for. Check it out and leave Matt a review while you’re at it.

Until next time, my Followers of Fear, pleasant nightmares (hopefully none that resemble popular contemporary movies, though).

*Still not sure why I was using a surfboard to navigate rivers and creeks (obviously a reference to the various paths we authors take to finding a publisher), as well as why that particular friend was with me (I love the guy and it always seems like no time has passed at all when we see each other, but he’s not a fiction writer, so I can’t think of why he would be in the dream).

I’ve been keen to read this novel since Stephen King tweeted about it months ago, saying this novel, which apparently is the first work of an already-established author published under a pen name, was the first great thriller of 2017.* By the time it came out on July 11th, I was one of the first people to get a copy at the library. And while I don’t always agree with King on what makes a good story (see my review for A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay), I have to say, he was right that this is a great thriller novel, possibly the first great one of 2017 (I haven’t read most of the others that came out this year, so who am I to judge?).

Final Girls follows Quincy Carpenter, the lone survivor of the Pine Cottage Massacre, in which a man she only refers to as Him killed all her friends while on a camping trip and she was the only survivor. This has made Quincy part of an exclusive club known as the Final Girls, women who have survived horror-movie style massacres and, like the girls in those movies, are the only ones to survive. The other two are Lisa Milner, the survivor of a sorority house murder spree in Indiana, and Samantha Boyd, who escaped and killed a killer known as the Sack Man at a motel in Florida. Quincy, who has no memory of the events at Pine Cottage, wants nothing but to keep up her baking blog, maybe marry her defense attorney boyfriend someday, and have some definition of normal.

That is, until Lisa Milner dies under mysterious circumstances in Indiana, and Samantha Boyd shows up at Quincy’s apartment in New York to talk. Suddenly Quincy’s life is thrown into a maelstrom as Sam’s presence threatens not just to unearth the memories from that fateful night, but change her world forever.

Immediately, you feel like this is two stories in one, a standard slasher and a mystery/thriller. On the slasher hand, you get to read Quincy’s recollections of Pine Cottage, which are told in third-person POV and past tense. And on the other hand, you get the events of Quincy’s current life, which are told in first-person POV and present tense, which is a mystery/thriller mixed with the story of two completely opposite people trying to bond over an incredible and dark situation. And both stories are peppered with references to horror movies, especially the best of the slasher genre. There are some obvious ones: Quincy’s last name is a reference to director John Carpenter of the Halloween series, while Lisa Milner’s massacre is an obvious reference to Black Christmas. But there are other, subtler references.  The mystery elements definitely remind me of the Scream movies and the TV series, which utilize mystery to offset themselves from tried-and-done-to-death slasher stories, as well as elements that make me think of Urban Legend. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, there are probably references I don’t recognize from movies/comics/shows/books I haven’t seen or read yet.

I also really enjoyed the characters. Quincy felt incredibly real to me: rather than being a character who’s always good and delicate or always damaged and dealing with her issues, she’s actually a pretty good balance of both. She’s clearly made some progress in trying to move on and have a new normal, but she also has issues that she doesn’t want to address, even takes some joy in, and those occasionally threaten the balance she’s trying to maintain in her life. It’s very refreshing to see such a realistic character like that. I also found Samantha Boyd (or Sam, as she prefers), to be very real. She’s a girl whose life is one defined by horrors, and who’s trying, in her own way, to reach out to the one person left in the world who knows what it’s like to have felt horrors like hers. The way she does it isn’t exactly smooth, but it does feel like someone with her background might use to reach out and find some mutual catharsis.

But the best part of the story is definitely how twisty it is. Even when we go back to Quincy’s past, it is anything but a standard slasher, going in directions you don’t see coming. Just today, while reading the last 70 or so pages, I kept marveling at surprise after surprise after surprise. And that’s pretty much how it is for most of the book, especially in the latter half of it. I think even some veteran mystery/thriller fans will find themselves surprised at the twists in store here in Final Girls.

If there’s one thing that might have been a drawback for this novel, I felt that the moments that Quincy and Sam were trying to bond were a little slow at times, but that may be nitpicking on my part. They were still well-written parts, and they showed both how much these girls wanted to be friends and how much they rubbed against each other as people.

On a scale of 1 to 5, I’m giving Final Girls a well-earned 4.6. From one page to the next, you never know what to expect, and it will only leave you wanting more. Go ahead, pick it up, and find you have a hard time putting it down.

* This tweet and hints about the author’s identity make me think it might be Stephen King’s son Joe Hill doing his own Richard Bachman turn, but that’s just my guess.