Magical book

Magical book

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What to Expect When You're Having a Book

(First published on Poe's Deadly Daughters)

Having a book is a life-changing event that no one should approach lightly, but it will be an easier and more joyous experience if you know what to expect every step of the way. Here, in condensed form, are a few pointers that I hope will be helpful.



You are madly, passionately in love with The Idea. It consumes you, heart and soul, mind and body. You want to move in with The Idea and share every second of every day with it.

Together the two of you are going to make a baby more beautiful and brilliant than any the world has ever seen. 

First Trimester


It’s real. At the moment it is little more than a blob on the screen, but you feel it growing, blooming, becoming something substantial that will change your life forever.

Yes, you have those queasy mornings when the niggling doubts creep in as you face the day, and those middle of the night, staring at the ceiling moments when a voice in your head whispers: What the heck am I doing? I can’t handle this! I’m going to fail, I’m going to produce a baby so ugly that people will avert their eyes and ask each other how it’s possible that such a hideous creature has been inflicted upon the world.

But most of the time you’re still excited, filled with anticipation. You start a list of possible names and dismiss with a weak smile the dreadful monikers suggested by family and friends. Your baby must have a special name, evocative and memorable.

Second Tri-mester


Of course you still love your baby. But now and then you don’t like it. The first kick in the gut was fun. Those that have followed, not so much. You don’t enjoy lying awake at night, worrying, while the baby acts up. You despair of finding a way to make it settle down.

And it’s getting bigger and bigger. Huge. Gigantic. Enormous. It’s not supposed to be this big, is it? But what can you do about it now?

The baby has taken over your life. You can’t even think of anything else. But this is what you wanted, isn’t it? 

Well, isn’t it?

Third Tri-mester


WILL THIS NEVER END?? You don’t care anymore what the blasted baby looks like. You don’t care whether anyone will love it. You’re not even sure you will love it. Just please, dear God in heaven, let this be over soon. 



Oh, the agony, the wrench of separation. Your baby is no longer a part of you. It’s out in the world now, where any idiot is free to take a look and pronounce it the ugliest thing they’ve ever seen. You can glory in the compliments but you can’t shield your baby from the snarky comments and you can’t force indifferent people to pay attention to it. Your baby, like each of us, is alone in the world and will stand or fall on its own merits.

Whether weeping or smiling, you must turn away, point yourself forward... toward the next Idea that’s waiting to seduce you.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's in a nickname?

When I was a kid, nobody called me Sandy. I was Sandra, the shy girl in glasses, to everybody.

Now my husband, best friends, and a lot of other mystery writers call me Sandy. Whether you address me as Sandra or Sandy is an indicator of something, but I’m not sure what. I do know that I feel friendlier to people who call me by the nickname. If you don’t know me well, don’t like me, or simply want to keep some distance between us, call me Sandra.  

I feel lucky that I’ve never been burdened with a silly or embarrassing nickname, but at the same time I think the lack of one says something unflattering about me. People who collect a bunch of cute and funny nicknames throughout their lives tend to be the popular, gregarious sort, the type everybody wants to befriend. So while I might roll my eyes at hearing grownups addressed as Bunny or whatever, I feel a tinge of envy too.

I think about nicknames a lot because, as a writer, I regularly have the power to name a whole gaggle of people for a new book. The majority of real people seem to have nicknames—or diminutives of their given names—but giving a character more than one label is verboten, because readers become confused if a guy is John on one page and Bubba on another and Jack on yet another. If I’m going to use a diminutive or nickname, that’s it. I may mention the character’s “real” name in passing, but I have to stick with the chosen moniker for the sake of readers.

Nicknames can tell us more about a person, or a character, than what’s on a birth certificate, so I’m drawn to them and would love to use more. Humans all over the planet have a penchant for nicknames, whether they’re given in affection, for convenience, or to show contempt and produce embarrassment. We start as kids on the playground, hurling insulting nicknames at each other or whispering them behind our poor victims’ backs, always believing we’re being terribly original and cutting. Bullies perfect the art of dreaming up humiliating nicknames to make life miserable for kids who are the slightest bit different from the local ideal. Teachers, whether they’re sexy young women or sour old men, are not exempt, although they will seldom be addressed face to face with the sobriquets their students have bestowed on them.

Just as we can’t resist giving nasty nicknames to people we detest or fear, we shower sweet names on our loved ones. Babies are addressed as Precious and Sweetums and Cupcake and Cutie Pie and Little Man and Princess, ad nauseum. Although we might give our pets nicknames in lieu of formal names to begin with, we always pile on more, and the things owners call their beloved cats and dogs in private probably shouldn’t be repeated out of respect for the animals’ dignity. (Our cats Emma and Gabriel have perfectly nice names, but I usually call them Sweetie or Sugar.)

Do you have a nickname? Do different people have different nicknames for you? What do their choices say about your relationships with them?

What do you call your pets when no one is around to hear?

Sunday, September 7, 2014



The Secret Place 

by Tana French
Viking (September 2014)

I’ll admit I groaned when I learned that Tana French’s fifth Dublin Murder Squad novel centered around teenage girls at a private school. The intense emotional lives of adolescent females have attracted the interest of a lot of writers lately, and few seem to have anything new to say about the cliques, the secrets, the sexual fantasies, the stupid behavior that arises from the ignorance and arrogance of the young. But this was Tana French, who hasn’t bored me yet. So of course I read The Secret Place.

I wasn’t disappointed. While French’s teens can be as obnoxious and pathetic as any others, they are also dangerous. Some of them may know more than they’re telling about a murder on school grounds. One of them may be the killer.
Holly Mackey, the 16-year-old daughter of Detective Frank Mackey (the protagonist in Faithful Place) and a student at St. Kilda’s School, stirs fresh interest in a stalled investigation when she brings potential new evidence to Detective Stephen Moran of the cold case squad. A year before, a popular boy named Chris Harper, who attended a nearby boys’ school, was found dead in a field at St. Kilda’s. Police were unable to solve the crime. Now Holly brings Moran a photo of the dead boy she found pinned to a notice board at school. Glued to the photo is a message composed of print cut from a magazine: I KNOW WHO KILLED HIM.
Moran, languishing in a police department backwater, seizes the opportunity to get in on a major homicide case. He takes the card to Detective Antoinette Conway, lead investigator in the Harper murder. She doesn’t like Moran, she doesn’t like being reminded that she failed to solve the case, but he’s willing and handy, so she takes him along on a visit to St. Kilda’s to ferret out the girl who posted the photo.
Both detectives are inner city Dubliners and fiercely ambitious, but in other ways they’re polar opposites. Moran is dazzled by the beautiful old school buildings and lavish grounds. Conway despises all of it and the class distinctions it represents, and wishes she could toss a petrol bomb at the idyllic scene. Conway is a hard-charger in interviews, while Moran plays good cop and tries to lull people into revealing what they know. Despite their prickly relationship, though, they work well together, promptly focusing on two rival cliques—one made up of Holly Mackey and her roommates—who had ties to Chris Harper. All the girls seem to be hiding things from the police, and more than one looks like a reasonable murder suspect. Throughout a long day of questioning the students, the St. Kilda’s nuns and its secular headmistress hover, determined to protect the school from further negative fallout, and Detective Frank Mackey steps in to protect his own daughter, even if it means leaving a murder unsolved.
The present-day investigation scenes alternate with flashbacks that follow the girls through the year preceding Chris Harper’s murder. French’s depiction of teenage behavior is pitch-perfect as she slowly reveals the truth about the boy whom “everybody loved” and the girls whose lives he touched. Most mystery readers try to identify the killer in advance, but they’re not likely to succeed this time. The one element that puzzled me, and seemed superfluous, was a minor touch of woo-woo that never led anywhere.
As always, French’s prose is superb, and her vivid descriptions make the most common of stock characters seem fresh. Upon meeting Miss McKenna, the headmistress, Stephen Moran observes: “That voice: like Maggie Thatcher turned Irish, shoulder-barging the world into its place with no room for argument. Made me feel like I should apologize quick, if I could work out what for.” When two girls argue, French writes: “The more furious Joanne gets, the more bits of her stick out—elbows, tits, arse.”
In an interview supplied by the publisher, French says she set The Secret Place in a small private school because the cloistered atmosphere intensifies the emotional turmoil of adolescence: “It’s isolated from the outside world, so it heightens the feeling that only your private world is real, and that everything that happens in that world is immense and crucial. That way of thinking is seductive, but it’s also dangerous.”
French draws interesting parallels between her tough female cop, Antoinette Conway, and the teenagers in the novel. “I don’t think Conway’s real problem with the Murder Squad is that she’s a woman. I think it’s that she’s still struggling with the same question that dogs the teenagers and Stephen: who gets to define you? Conway refuses to budge an inch to adapt to the Murder Squad; she’s like a teenager refusing to conform to peer pressure, and the Squad—which is a tight-knit, isolated world not that different from St. Kilda’s—reacts with the same ferocity as a group of teenagers would.”
Each of French’s novels so far has focused on a different member of the Dublin Murder Squad. Her next book, though, will feature Antoinette Conway and Stephen Moran working as partners again, with Conway narrating the story. These characters are good together, and another pairing will be welcome.
The publisher provided a free hardcover copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Reading Psychological Suspense

Psychological suspense is what I most enjoy reading, but despite the popularity of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girls and a flood of books labeled psychological suspense and promoted as “The next Gone Girl!” I have trouble finding enough of it to feed my habit.

I’m not sure many people, including New York publishers, know what it is.

When I asked friends if they’d read any psychological suspense novels they could recommend, a surprising number suggested murder mysteries and gory thrillers. And some books labeled “chilling psychological suspense” by their publishers turn out to be either (1) slow-moving mysteries in which the characters think a lot or (2) pallid thrillers with shallow characters and write-by-numbers plot twists. (“It’s page 100, time to throw in a threatening phone call or e-mail.”) Many otherwise excellent crime novels are also erroneously labeled psychological suspense.

The blending of subgenres that’s so common these days contributes to the confusion. Many modern mysteries and thrillers contain more insight into human behavior than genre novels of the past. Tana French, for example, demonstrates exquisite understanding of emotion and motivation—but that doesn’t make her novels psychological suspense. She writes superb mysteries about cops solving murders, and the investigation drives every plot. I’ve seen them described as “psychological mysteries” and believe that’s an accurate label.

A psychological suspense novel may contain murder, but crime-solving isn’t the driving force. The focus is on the emotional and mental impact of events on the protagonist, and on the character’s struggle to survive what is happening to him or her. The pace is usually slower, with less physical action, fewer of the jolting twists that mark modern thrillers. Suspense builds gradually, until the sense of dread becomes overwhelming. Something terrible is going to happen, but neither the protagonist nor the reader knows what to expect or when it will come. Fear of an unknown, unpredictable danger is at the heart of psychological suspense, and tone is everything. People and situations are never what they seem.

Three of my favorite authors of psychological suspense are Thomas H. Cook, Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine, and Lisa Unger. My favorite Cook novel is an older one, Mortal Memory, although I enjoy everything he publishes. The Barbara Vine novel A Dark-Adapted Eye is a masterpiece, and such Rendell books as The Bridesmaid perfectly fit the definition of psychological suspense. Unger is brilliant at creating damaged characters caught up in nightmare scenarios. In her latest book, In the Blood, echoes from a young woman’s horrific childhood threaten to wreck her carefully constructed present life, with a young boy serving as the agent of destruction.

One of the most engrossing psychological suspense novels I’ve read in the last few years is Until I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, told from the viewpoint of a woman who awakens every morning with no memory of her identity and past. Her struggle to retain some scraps of memory from day to day, and to discover what obliterated her life, is riveting and terrifying. The isolated heroine, doubting her own sanity, has long been a staple in the subgenre, but Watson made a stock character into something wholly original.

Domestic turmoil is fertile ground for writers of psychological suspense, and some of the most compelling recent novels in the subgenre are tales of families trapped in terrifying situations.

The Cry by Australian Helen Fitzgerald is an outstanding novel that deserves the kind of acclaim and broad readership that Gone Girl has received. Rather than fitting tightly into a genre category, it deals with issues familiar to most people and succeeds as a novel on every level. Throughout the book, we know that Joanna, the Scottish protagonist, is on trial in Australia, but exactly what she has done isn’t clear. The story that unfolds follows the characters through the kind of ordinary domestic dramas that can lead, with one bad decision, to catastrophe. Joanna fell in love and had a baby with Alistair, a journalist married to another woman. Alistair’s wife, now his ex, has taken their teenage daughter back to the family’s home country, Australia, which forces him to travel there if he wants to see his first child. During a grueling flight from Glasgow to Australia, the baby cries constantly and Joanna, ill and exhausted, tries to calm him while Alistair blissfully naps in his seat. Other passengers, annoyed by the baby’s crying, become verbally abusive toward the harried Joanna, and she erupts into a tirade. Her behavior serves as evidence against her later, when the baby disappears in Australia and the case becomes an international sensation. The reader knows the truth, knows how much Joanna and Alistair are hiding, and the torment Joanna endures is harrowing. This is an unforgettable story.

The Lie of You by Jane Lythell also revolves around a mother, a baby, and an intruder in a happy family’s life. Kathy, an architectural magazine editor, has no idea that a junior colleague, a recently hired Finnish beauty named Heja, hides a raging jealousy behind her cool exterior. Telling the story from both women’s viewpoints, the author lets the reader watch as Heja carries out her plan to destroy Kathy’s marriage and career. Why is she doing it? The answer lies in the past and involves devastating secrets.

Until You’re Mine by Samantha Hayes is trickier, challenging the reader to figure out what’s really going on. To the observer, Claudia’s life is wonderful: she’s dedicated to her job as a social worker, she’s happily married with two stepsons she loves, and she’s pregnant with her first baby. When she hires Zoe as a nanny and helper, the household becomes increasingly unsettled and nasty cracks open in the perfect fa├žade. This novel has an ending that made me go back and start again to see how the author did it.

This Is the Water by Yannick Murphy doesn’t live up to the publisher’s promise of “a fast-paced story of murder, adultery, parenthood, and romance” but it has other qualities that make it memorable. A group of parents in a small New England community become entangled in one another’s lives as their young daughters train for a swim meet at “the facility.” Annie, who stands out as the protagonist in a swirl of viewpoints, has two daughters on the swim team and a husband who has lost interest in her. While she’s in the bleachers flirting with a friend’s husband, a killer—who gets his own viewpoint—watches one of the girls. The girl is later murdered, and the killing triggers a series of events that test relationships and lead to a stunning conclusion. This book’s biggest handicap—or its greatest pleasure, depending on your taste— is the way the author tells the story. She begins many sentences, perhaps a majority, with “This is” and uses second person for Annie’s scenes, as in: “This is you, waiting for your daughters…” I found the device so intrusive that it almost ruined the book for me. I also learned more than I ever wanted to know about children’s competitive swimming and the petty jealousies of “swim moms.” Yet the final section of the novel is excellent, and the book overall has many moments of striking insight that give it depth and resonance.

That, above all, is what I look for in psychological suspense: depth and resonance.