Here be great books!

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Helena reads two top-notch literary thrillers from both sides of the pond  (and inevitably ends up buying more books, although she promised she wouldn’t, or at least not until Christmas..).

 Megan Abbotts - Dare Me Trust Your Eyes (Linwood Barclay)   My So-Called Life Megan Abbotts  - The End of Everything

High school, as My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase would tell you, is a battlefield for your heart. For the characters in Megan Abbotts latest novel Dare Me, it is also a battlefield for your kidney, spleen, stomach, kneecaps, arms, legs, and skull. Among other things. Yes, bones break, perfect,  unblemished teenage skin bruises, dreams are crushed and fulfilled, friendships formed and killed... and yes, there will be blood. Cheerleading has never been quite as cutthroat as portrayed here, and for me, whose previous experience with cheerleading boils down to a few dozen Sweet Valley books and two instalments of Bring It On, it is absolutely fascinating. The narrator, Addy, has been inseparable with Beth, captain and queen bee of the cheerleading squad, all through high school. When a new coach arrives, immediately taking charge and stirring things up, the dynamic between Addy and Beth, as well as all the cheerleaders, changes. Increasingly fascinated with their new coach, Addy finds herself drawn into a grown-up, distinctly dangerous world, and cheerleading - or indeed life - will never be the same again.

Part thriller, part pitch-black high school drama, Dare Me is an absolute must for everyone who is into dark, edgy thrillers, Tom Perrotta’s oeuvre, and Heathers. I, personally, adore all of these things, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I enjoyed every single page. Abbott’s style, cut-glass  sharp, is perfect for the story, and I found myself taking note of particularly captivating phrases, such as “her eyes shot through with blood and boredom”. Abbott is clearly a natural when it comes to depicting the complexity (and absurdity) of teenage life, as well as a deeply readable thriller  writer. I will most definitely read up on her back catalogue, starting with her penultimate novel The End of Everything

As soon as I’d finished Dare Me, I picked up Cathi Unsworth’s latest novel Weirdo and was blown away with the realisation of just how many brilliant female literary thriller writers there are out there at the moment. Clearly, these are great times to be Helena, literary thriller reader extraordinaire. You’ve got your Flynn, your Hand, your French, your Bolton, and now, seemingly, your Abbott and your Unsworth. Keep them coming, please! (Yes, I’m looking at you, Jan.)

Weirdo also explores the world of teenage boredom and the combined allure and danger of transgressing into an adult world at too tender an age, although from a different angle. There are no cheerleaders in this story, only outcasts, freaks, Goths and bloody weirdos. For me, never the popular girl at school and clearly more of a Goth than a cheerleader type (I couldn’t do a backflip if my life depended upon it, but I do have everything Nick Cave and Joy Division have ever recorded), these are more comfortable, and relatable, turfs. Weirdo is razor sharp and emotionally intense, a declaration of love to the 80’s Goth scene as well as a pitch-perfect and haunting depiction of small town fear, prejudice, and secrecy. In 1984, the small coastal town - my Morrissey marinated mind immediately starts humming “this is the coastal town that they forgot to bomb” - of Ernemouth was shellshocked by the brutal murder of a teenage boy. Local outcast Corinne Woodrow, later dubbed the Wicked Witch of the East by the tabloids, has spent the last decades locked away in a mental institution after having been convicted of the crime. But did she actually do it? As cop turned private investigator Sean Ward takes on the case, he unearths old memories and secrets kept hidden by a close-knit community. Secrets: dark. Potential danger: yes. Oh yes.

Elizabeth Hand  - Available Dark Generation Loss - Elizabeth Hand

When I first read about Weirdo, I was reminded of the premises of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. Both novels are partially set in the 1980’s, a notorious and violent crime at the dark heart of the story. Furthermore, both deal with fear of unknown subcultures and teenage phenomena, and alienation, poverty, and social injustice run deep in both novels so yes, I would say that there are definite similarities although the plots, settings, characters, and style are different. There  is also a nice punky noir feel to Unsworth’s prose that will, I daresay, appeal to fans of Elizabeth Hand’s Cass Neary books (Generation Loss, Available Dark). I have, ostensibly, issued myself with a book buying ban for the remainder of 2012 (seriously, my “to read” piles have never been higher, or more life threatening, for that matter) but I will make an exception for Unsworth. The Singer and Bad Penny Blues, come to mama! If I need to reason with myself, or those perilously towering book piles, I’ll just think of it as early Christmas gifts. 

Also recommended

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh

Louise Welsh has been a huge favourite of mine ever since I read her universally praised debut The Cutting Room, and this is the best one she’s written in years. I’d describe it as queer noir with a distinct Hitchcockian vibe. Great stuff.

Dolly by Susan Hill

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as curling up on the sofa on a rainy November night with a brand new ghost story from Susan Hill. Dolly isn’t as terrifying, or as good, as Hill’s number one ghost story, The Woman in Black, but it is atmospheric and intensely readable in that spooky/cosy M.R. James tradition I love so much. 

The Girl on the Stairs by Louise Welsh   Dolly by Susan Hill

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