This is the latest of Rhamey’s “Flog a Pro” posts at Writer Unboxed. I’ve linked to them here from time to time because it really is interesting: Here’s an unidentified recent bestseller: Knowing nothing about this book, would you turn the page?
Let’s take a look at this particular first page:
Adelaide Hills, South Australia
New Year’s Day
And, of course, there was to be a lunch party to mark the new year. A small affair, just family, but Thomas would require all the trimmings. Unthinkable that they would do otherwise: the Turners were big on tradition, and with Nora and Richard visiting from Sydney, neither frippery nor fanfare was to be skipped.
Isabel had decided to set up in a different part of the garden this year. Usually, they sat beneath the walnut tree on the eastern lawn, but today she’d been drawn to the stretch of grass in the shade of Mr. Wentworth’s cedar. She’d walked across it when she was cutting flowers for the table earlier and been struck by the pretty westward view toward the mountains. Yes, she’d said to herself. This will do very well. The arrival of the thought, her own decisiveness, had been intoxicating.
She told herself it was all part of her New Year’s resolution—to approach 1959 with a fresh pair of eyes and expectations—but there was a small internal voice that wondered whether she wasn’t rather tormenting her husband just a little with the sudden breach of protocol. Ever since they’d discovered the sepia photograph of Mr. Wentworth and his similarly bearded Victorian friends arranged in elegant wooden recliners on the eastern lawn, Thomas had been immovable in his conviction that it represented the superior entertaining spot.
My immediate response: Oh, a toxic family forced together in a lunch party, wow, how fun.
My second response: My goodness, her own decisiveness is intoxicating, really?
My third response: She is into tormenting her husband in small ways, I guess.
All put together, this is not just a NO, but a GOOD LORD NO.
This novel was number two on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list for April 23, 2023, says Rhamey. Well, of course I don’t look for book recommendations at the NYT. I get plenty of book recommendations, far better tailored for my personal tastes, from all of you right here. But I have to wonder, do people in general REALLY like this book? Have they liked other books by this author? Were those books also centered on indecisive, ineffectual protagonists involved in toxic family relationships?
Of course, the story might get better. I don’t even know what genre this is. Maybe it’s not literary fiction. Maybe it’s a thriller or horror and everyone but what’s her name … Issbel, right … is going to be dead in twenty pages. That might be more interesting!
Oh, hey, while on the subject of thrillers and horror, Sarah Beth Durst has a brand new supernatural thriller/horror type of book out, The Lake House, just dropped a few days ago.
Now, I don’t love everything by Durst, but I DO love a lot of her books and I always feel she’s worth a try. I I have one of hers on my actual physical TBR shelves because everything about it appeals to me, but I haven’t managed to read it yet … oh, it’s only been three years, that’s not bad! I’ve been busy! It’s this one:
Isn’t that a splendid cover?
But this new title, The Lake House, this one strikes me as maybe coming from the same place as a different novel of hers, Lost, which I liked a lot. This is completely different, don’t get me wrong, I just feel that it’s pushing some of the same buttons. There were some odd supernatural elements to that one, kind of edging on horror, but not really. I would very much have liked a sequel.
This one seems a bit like that to me. Here’s the description:
Claire’s grown up triple-checking locks. Counting her steps. Second-guessing every decision. It’s just how she’s wired—her worst-case scenarios never actually come true. Until she arrives at an off-the-grid summer camp to find a blackened, burned husk instead of a lodge—and no survivors, except her and two other late arrivals: Reyva and Mariana. When the three girls find a dead body in the woods, they realize none of this is an accident. Someone, something, is hunting them. Something that hides in the shadows. … Something that refuses to let them leave.
Now, this is the kind of setup that I like for a thriller/horror type of novel, especially one where I feel it’s not that likely to end in blood-soaked tragedy. All the reviews talk about how the friendship among these girls is centered, which is important to me and also makes me feel like it’s unlikely any of the girls are going to actually die. I think a reviewer would have mentioned that, especially if the friendship is central and then one were killed.
If you click through and read the reviews, be careful, because one of the reviews is like, Here, let me tell you the whole plot, wouldn’t want you to actually be surprised by any plot twists! As a side note to this extensive digression, let me just add, that is not a great way to write a review. I’m sure mileage here may vary, but all I want to know is that these three girls arrive at summer camp, they discover everyone is dead, someone or something is stalking them, and there’s a supernatural element. That’s it. I don’t want to know anything else.
Anyway, I’m giving this one a try, and MEANWHILE, back to the bestseller featured in Rhamey’s post. That is Homecoming by Kate Morton.
And my goodness, that is a lovely cover. Just lovely. I’m practically in morning that the story inside that cover is apparently all about toxic family relationships. What IS the book about? Here’s the description:
Adelaide Hills, Christmas Eve, 1959: At the end of a scorching hot day, beside a creek on the grounds of a grand country house, a local man makes a terrible discovery. Police are called, and the small town of Tambilla becomes embroiled in one of the most baffling murder investigations in the history of South Australia. Many years later and thousands of miles away, Jess is a journalist in search of a story. Having lived and worked in London for two decades, she now finds herself unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. A phone call out of nowhere summons her back to Sydney, where her beloved grandmother Nora, who raised Jess when her mother could not, has suffered a fall and is seriously ill in the hospital. At Nora’s house, Jess discovers a true crime book chronicling a long-buried police case: the Turner Family Tragedy of 1959. It is only when Jess skims through its pages that she finds a shocking connection between her own family and this notorious event – a mystery that has never been satisfactorily resolved.
And I’ll be darned, that IS a thriller/mystery type of novel! I would NEVER have thought so from the opening page. NEVER. Suddenly this is a much more coherent post than I expected, because I’m actually juxtaposing two books that are both in the general realm of thrillers and mysteries.
I wouldn’t have thought so from the cover either! I think this is an EPIC FAIL for the cover, which to me looks like a literary fantasy cover or a magical realism cover but DEFINITELY NOT a thriller/suspense cover. Maybe you all disagree?
Let me lean into the contrast in this post by looking at the first page of Durst’s book. Here it is, and would you turn the page?
Clair excelled at three things: ballet, homework, and identifying all the ways there were to die in any given situation. Like now, on this boat. She couldn’t stop thinking about how easy it would be to be knocked off the side, hit your head as you fell, and drown.
Less likely: being guillotined by a fishing ine.
Also unlikely but still possible: being pierced by shrapnel if the engine exploded.
She fidgeted with her life jacket, touching the three buckles in rapid succession, until she felt reassured they were secure.
I hate boats, she decided.
She also hated airplanes, particularly the minuscule prop planes that felt as if they’d been assembled by a five-year-old with unfettered access to glue. That had been the other option for the trip to the Lake House — itty-bitty prop plane. There were no roads.
What do you think? I think this is VASTLY more engaging than the first page of Homecoming. Words can hardly express how much more appealing this is. Clair has issues, fine. She might be one-dimensional, but I expect she, and the reader, will discover hidden depths. I expect by the end of the story she will worry a lot less about things like boats and planes. The writing itself is far, far more fun. There is, thankfully, no hint of toxic family relationships. They might be there, who knows, but (a) probably not, I bet Clair’s family is worried about her anxiety; and (b) regardless, the reader’s face isn’t being shoved into those toxic family relationships on the first page.
Okay, I would definitely turn the page of Durst’s book, and unless I knew it was a suspense/mystery, I would never turn the page of Morton’s book.
Only in mysteries can you easily get away with starting in a pov that is not the pov of the protagonist, and with any luck the protagonist of Homecoming is FAR more appealing than what’s-her-name, I still can’t remember … Isabel, right. But I have to ask: Why would the author of a thriller, a suspense novel, or a mystery WANT to start in the pov of an unappealing, unengaging person who is stuck in an unappealing, unengaging luncheon party for family members she doesn’t like? Why would you do that to yourself? If you’re going to shift into the pov of someone more appealing later, then why open in a pov that the reader is so likely to detest? Is that because you’re going to kill the protagonist at the end of the chapter? That doesn’t sound like it happens in Homecoming, btw. But even if that’s the plan … how about not doing that?
I’m tempted to open up half a dozen mysteries that start with the pov of the murder victim, look at the opening of the second chapter, and ask myself whether that wouldn’t have been a fine place to open the story.
I do not have time to read The Lake House or anything else. I am proofreading No Foreign Sky. I’m proofreading on my phone, and right away I can tell that this format change has been enough to make me see the text far better. I’m highlighting and making notes directly in the ebook on my phone and that is also useful.
No Foreign Sky drops in a mere 14 days! I have to have the final version loaded in 9 days! AAAGH. Thus, no time for anything but very fast and intensive proofreading.