Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense (August 11, 2015) by Julia Heaberlin

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of SuspenseBlack-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense by Julia Heaberlin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Black-Eyed Susans: A Novel of Suspense, by Julia Heaberlin, is a book which was both more, and less, than I had anticipated.
This thriller is compared (as is everything else these days, insomuch as the comparison now seems almost meaningless) to the novels of Gillian Flynn. It is also compared to the novels of Laura Lippman.
I’m a fan of both Flynn and Lippman, but I think they write very different kinds of novels.
In this case, I think that both comparisons were apt, and it is in part because Black-Eyed Susans does have similarities to the work of two dissimilar authors that it is not entirely successful.
Black-Eyed Susans has a wonderful sense of place; it is set in Texas, which author Heaberlin clearly knows intimately and loves. In this way, Black-Eyed Susans reminded me of the southern-gothic atmosphere that Flynn crafts so well.
However, Black-Eyed Susans is much less dark in tone than Flynn’s novels. Instead, it feels wholesome in the same way that Lippman’s mysteries do. In the end, Black-Eyed Susans felt like a psychological-thriller that chickened out when it came to going to any truly “dark places.”
In a nutshell, here are a few other things that really stood out to me about Black-Eyed Susans:
I loved how Heaberlin included facts and idiosyncrasies about the Texas justice system. Her depiction of the death penalty in Texas was both enlightening and disturbing, an intimate look at what the town of Huntsville, with its “death house,” is really like.
Heaberlin’s description is based on research and interviews with experts (police, forensics experts, defense attorneys, advocates) and the novel never seems voyeuristic. Instead, in Black-Eyed Susans, Heaberlin gives insight into a powerful, disturbing reality that most of us know little about.
What I didn’t like as much was the way Heaberlin worked out the part of the plot which centered around our unreliable narrator Tessa’s buried memories.
The story flips between Tessa as an adult, counting down the days to her convicted “monster’s” execution, and her memories from childhood, as she first recovered from being assaulted by a serial killer. In the end, I found the explanation of what really happened to Tessa to be a bit of a letdown. The resolution detracted from the power of some earlier scenes in the novel.
Also, I was disappointed that the “fairytale” element of the story was never fully developed.
Ultimately, I think Heaberlin had two or three separate (and very intriguing) ideas for the type of story she wanted to tell. I hope as she continues writing, she develops more tonal clarity and confidence.
I highly recommend Black-Eyed Susans, especially for the fascinating peek into forensics, DNA, and the criminal justice system today. And I think many readers, will, like I did, really enjoy some of the wonderful and complex main characters, like Tessa, her daughter Charlie, their eccentric neighbor Effie, and the team of advocates who made them, and me as a reader, see the world in a new way.
Thank you to the publisher through NetGalley for my arc of Black-Eyed Susans: a Novel of Suspense. This review also appears on Goodreads and Facebook.

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The Sleep Room by F. R. Tallis

The Sleep RoomThe Sleep Room by F.R. Tallis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I find it fascinating to read other reviews of The Sleep Room by F.R Tallis, because some people found this story to hit the perfect note of classic suspense, while others found it slow, predictable, and a letdown. It seems that the biggest disparity of opinion comes in reader’s perceptions of the final twist of the novel…some people thought it was brilliant, and others felt it undermined the rest of the book.
Here are my thoughts about the The Sleep Room. First of all, I enjoyed the setting, the isolated mental asylum of Wyldehope Hall on the Suffolk coast. Crashing waves, misty bogs, shadowy corridors…the novel is a pleasure of gothic escapism.
However, like some reviewers, I felt that the main character, James Richardson was difficult to root for, even though I tried. Although in many ways, his intentions seemed altruistic, there was also a lascivious, narcissistic, unforgiving side of him that made him rather repellent.
Furthermore, the plot was a lot of buildup with not a lot of follow through. The ending of the The Sleep Room was confusing…and almost seemed to consist of two distinct stories.
On the one hand, there was a more traditional partial explanation for the mysterious events that were occurring at Wyldehope Hall. And on the other, the author threw in a twist, that for me, undermined the significance of the entire story that had gone before. The surprise felt unnecessary, and cheapened what could have been an enjoyable, classic ghost story without it. It almost seemed to me like the twist was an excuse to create a flashy distraction, and let the author off the hook from the more difficult task of coming up with a compelling explanation for the mystery that he had created.
In The Sleep Room, F.R. Tallis has written a novel with a strong sense of place and an intriguing premise. Unfortunately, in my opinion, he was unable to back this up with a convincing conclusion, or compelling main character.

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In the Blood (7 January 2014) by Lisa Unger

In the BloodIn the Blood by Lisa Unger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the Blood is the first novel I have read by Lisa Unger, and happily, it exceeded my expectations. It is the story of Lana Granger, a psychology student at Sacred Heart College in upstate New York. As the story begins, Lana gets an afternoon job as a babysitter for an eleven-year-old boy named Luke. Despite Lana’s immediate sense of comfort with Luke’s mother, she soon realizes that Luke himself is anything but a normal pre-teen boy. Luke is diagnosed as “callous-unemotional,” the term for children who lack empathy and are considered at risk for developing into sociopaths as adults. Lana, for her own part, has a mysterious and troubled past, which is only revealed to us bit by bit as the story unfolds. The cat-and-mouse game that develops between Lana and Luke, as well as the disappearance of Lana’s friend Beck, are the basis for a twisting, suspense-filled story that is hard to put down.
Due to the garish covers on Lisa Unger’s novels, I had expected In the Blood to be a rather generic thriller. However, from the first pages, I was pleasantly impressed with the quality of Lisa Unger’s writing.  In the Blood was a fast-paced, addictive read, but it was also a thought-provoking exploration of the psychology of sociopaths. And while at times, the numerous plot twists seemed implausible, the story was so enjoyable that I was happily willing to suspend disbelief and go along for the literary ride. From early on in the novel, I suspected that I knew what the big plot twist would be, but in fact, there were multiple reveals that were wholly unexpected. Ultimately, In the Blood was great fun to read. It was the kind of escapist fiction that is perfect for a plane ride or a vacation. I’m glad that I gave Lisa Unger a try, and recommend this book to anyone craving a good thriller.
I received a review copy of In the Blood from the publisher through NetGalley.

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