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 Barter by Siobhan Adcock

The BarterThe Barter by Siobhan Adcock

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Barter is a deceptively easy read with an ambitious scope. This debut novel follows two women, living 100 years apart, in Texas. Rebecca is a German immigrant who has led a life of (relative) luxury in town with her father and elderly aunt. She marries her childhood friend John, a farmer, and they begin the stark, demanding task of living off the land.
The second woman is Bridget, a young mother living in the same location in the present day. Bridget has recently given up her high-powered career as a lawyer to stay at home with her baby daughter, Julie.
Our story begins as Bridget sees the ghost of a woman in her house. As the plot unfolds, the narrative alternates between chapters detailing Bridget’s increasingly terrifying encounters, and Rebecca’s tragic life, the catalyst for present horror.
The two women mirror each other, for while living in different centuries, they both struggle with similar issues of identity, sacrifice, and what it means to be a “successful” wife, mother, and woman.
Siobhan Adcock is an intelligent author, and one who is clearly trying to write a story with a message that she feels passionately about. I applaud her intentions, but have mixed feelings about the results.
First the good:
The Barter contains two interesting, and very different stories. Bridget’s narrative is written in the style of contemporary domestic noir, and calls to mind thrillers such as The Memory Child by Steena Holmes, and Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant. Bridget goes to yoga, gets coffee at Starbucks, runs out of gas, and wonders how well she really knows her own husband.
On the other hand, Rebecca’s story is a fascinating look into the world of German immigrants living in Texas at the turn of the century. Siobhan Adcock has clearly researched this time period, and I found it fascinating to learn more about a culture that I really knew nothing about. Adcock has the talent of writing historical fiction in which every detail adds to the sense of place. Her inclusion of German fairy tales also created a sense of magic and enchantment.
Now, the not so good:
Adcock’s writing style feels sort of like gorgeous paint spilling all over the place. There is a potential for art there, but Adcock doesn’t have full control of it.
Her writing is lyrical, sometimes beautiful even, but it has a sort of untethered, running-away-with-it feel, which felt sloppy. In addition to this, many of the sentences are long and wordy, and the action in the story (ie, instances of Bridget seeing, and running away from, the ghost) seem repetitive.
On top of this, I found the conclusion of The Barter to be confusing and unsatisfying. It seemed very clear that Adcock was trying to convey a message about women, and sacrifice, and identity. But the metaphor she was using to explain it, and the decisions that Bridget and Rebecca made, didn’t make sense to me. It was disappointing to feel like I had missed the entire point of the story. I did not understand the implications of how Bridget finally dealt with the ghost, or of “the barter.”
And I wanted to understand. Adcock is talking about important stuff…To the Lighthouse, The Awakening, women searching for purpose and meaning kind of stuff. But in the case of The Barter, I was left with the feeling of potential not fully realized. I applaud Adcock for her debut, and hope that in future, her novels will keep the liveliness she brings to history, while including just a bit more structure and clarity.

I would like to thank Dutton Publishers for my advance review copy of The Barter.

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