Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Book review: Waking Hours, by Lis Wiehl, with Pete Nelson

Waking Hours, by Lis Wiehl (with Pete Nelson)
Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2011

Genre. Waking Hours is a murder mystery with overtones of supernatural horror. The supernatural elements are distinct yet understated, so do not think Ted Dekker or Frank Peretti. However the murder aspects are fairly explicit, making this not family or youth reading. If that genre offends or doesn't interest you, this isn't your book or review.

However, if it does, Dear Reader...

Writing. As I read Waking Hours, I kept thinking of my painful review of Litfin's The Gift. There, I was forced to say that the narrative and, more, the dialogue was often regrettably stilted, unnatural and awkward. Thankfully, in this case the comparison is by way of contrast.

The writing in Waking Hours is far more natural, and the dialogue moves beyond adequate to delightful. The different characters speak in different voices, and are natural, fun, and often laugh-out-loud humorous. There are very few missteps, such as that when a male character refers to a childhood incident of lighting his "bangs" on fire (81) — bangs not a "guy" term of self-reference. This, however, is by far the exception in a book brimming with dialogue that makes the characters vivid and likable. This includes both external and internal dialogue.

For instance, Dani Harris, the main female character, has just re-met former NFL hero Tommy Gunderson, for whom she had briefly had feelings in high school.
"I apologize if I smell bad," he said. "When Liam called, I rushed here without grabbing a shower."

"You smell fine," she said.

Why were they talking about how he smelled? When had she ever talked to anybody about how they smelled? (31)
Their initial awkwardness and internal tension goes both ways, as we see in this interchange, where Tommy obviously doesn't know how to respond to a compliment from Dani, and comes out with
"Did you know that the animal that has the most dreams is the platypus?" he told her.

"How did you know that?"

"How do you not know that?" he said. "It's common knowledge. I read it somewhere."

"What do platypuses dream of?"

"Probably about being anything other than a platypus." He'd also read somewhere that trying to impress a girl with random facts was something only morons did. (123-124)
Cops sound like cops, older people sound like older people, and kids sound like kids. Take this teen, who finds himself a possible suspect in a gruesome murder:
"Hi, Liam," Dani said. "How are you doing?" 
"Okay," Liam said, drying his eyes with a tissue and then dabbing at his nose. "I mean, not  really. But I'm okay. I guess." (45)
You can hear a teen saying that.

It is well that the dialogue is so effective, because there is more of it than there is action. In fact, the narrative often felt a bit rushed, as if the author were in a hurry to move along. For the most part this is used to good effect, as one never feels the story lagging; yet for a rarity, I found myself wanting a bit more exposition, a bit more grace in some transitions. I wrote "abrupt" in my margin at several transitions.

However, the book opens with an effective, eerie scene, which is the first of several. One feels the author eager to move on rather than (as some) describing each branch and pebble along the way. Overall this factor is a strength, though one feels it at the fore in some sequences.

At times, the dialogue switches from blow-by-blow to summary, and one wonders at the variance. For instance:
His aunt sighed. She explained that Abbie had once been a vital life force in the town, active in the church, an avid letter writer to the local paper, a favorite dinner guest, and a the town historian a tireless chronicler of the town's narrative and chairman of the East Salem Historical Society. She'd been outgoing and extroverted until her health began to fail. (104)
Given the writers' gift for dialogue, this would better have been conveyed as such: "When I was a girl, nothing ever happened but that Abbie Gardener was at the heart of it. If the church had a pot luck, Abbie organized it, and believe you me, her pot lucks were legendary." And so forth.

It is a compliment to the writers of a 300+ page book that one wishes it had been longer, and in this case, I think I do. Yet I'd rather be there than buried under reams of needless exposition, as sometimes happens (for instance) with Tad Williams and Stephen Donaldson.

Story. Waking Hours starts off with a tense, creepy, portentous scene, then dives into the discovery of a grisly murder. The main characters, former football star-turned-private-eye Tommy Gunderson and forensic psychiatrist Dani Harris, are introduced with narrative that gradually informs without heavyhanded exposition. The two knew each other years earlier, but it is this case and a mutual connection with some of the kids who come under suspicion that throws them back into each other's lives.

Other "real"-feeling characters are introduced, such as detective Casey, whose initial disrespect for Dani is decisively overcome. On first meeting Casey's first words, in a meeting with fellow-professionals, are "How old are you?" Dani shoots back, "Twenty-nine. What do you weigh?" (36) After one more clash, Casey apologizes, and they're on good footing for the duration.

We also meet Tommy's older Christian friend Carl, who provides more theological and scholarly religious input, as well as the teens themselves. Tommy joins Dani as an unofficial assistant investing the case, and both become personally involved with the case, and with each other.

The best part of the story is the dialogue, but the plot continues to develop and unfold steadily, building tension and directing suspicion first here, then there. Behind it all are recurring eerie "coincidences" and occurrences. A reader unfamiliar with Wiehl's work (as I was) has no idea where events are leading.

The climax makes sense, yet feels also a bit abrupt and incomplete — but then subsequent events (which I'll neither disclose nor hint at) makes sense of that, as well.

Theology and morality. Secular horror stories (Stephen King, Clive Barker, etc.) tend to be filled both with immoral sex and with bucket-loads of profanity. Waking Hours hasn't a drop of either, which is refreshing. One need not read in a constant state of cringe.

It is apparent that Tommy is some kind of Christian, as is his friend Carl. Dani is less outward, but seems at least to be in the ballpark. Scripture comes in prominently here and there, but the book is neither a tract nor a work in systematics. The demonic comes in, and there is where I think we may be further into speculative ground — yet it is as speculation, so nothing that doctrinally brought slammed brakes or flashing red lights.

One has the feeling that subsequent books will introduce more of both elements.

Recommendation. I really enjoyed the book, and found myself looking forward to getting back into it. It is reportedly the first The East Salem Trilogy, and I want to be there for the subsequent volumes.

I was glad Nelson sent me a review copy. If this is a genre you enjoy, I recommend Waking Hours as an engaging and fun read.

Well, "fun" except for the gory parts.

And some of you will want to leave the lights up.


Wendy said...

Excellent!! I've been waiting for good alternatives to my previously-favorite leave-the-lights-on novels.

Rita Tomassetti said...

Thanks for this review! It is actually one genre I used to enjoy but because of these reasons " Secular horror stories (Stephen King, Clive Barker, etc.) tend to be filled both with immoral sex and with bucket-loads of profanity." I stopped reading them. I'll definitely give this book a read.

DJP said...

Tell me what you think when you do, sistahs.

AnnMetcalf said...

We have a lot of Lis Wiehl on Vyrso.com. I have not read this title but look forward to checking into it. Thanks for sharing your review!

DJP said...

Hm; you don't have The World-Tilting Gospel, however.