The Woods - 2015 Reading Challenge

When did I get so into thrillers? The short answer to that is, since I started writing one. Needless to say, this was one of the easiest check boxes for me to fill on the 2015 Reading Challenge. I devour Harlan Coben thrillers like they're coffee-flavored ice cream or peanut butter and chocolate cupcakes, and The Woods was no different.

Essex County Prosecutor, Paul Copeland, has always blamed himself for the murders of four teenagers (including his sister) at a summer camp during his youth. The one night he slipped guard duty, four kids sneaked out and a serial killer dispatched them in the darkness of the woods. His sister's body and one other were never found. Twenty years later, the unsolved murder gets a new lead when a fresh corpse turns up at the morgue, and Paul is convinced it belongs to the other man they all thought was killed in those woods. Could this mean his sister is still alive?

This is good stuff, but dark stuff too. I would expect nothing less from Mr. Coben. One of the many things I enjoy about his writing, however, is that he never resorts to gore for the sake of gore. He has terrified me, chilled me, even made me feel slightly ill with dread, but he has never grossed me out. Why? He doesn't need to. Harlan Coben knows how to make you whip through the pages without (in my opinion) cheapening his stories with glorified violence and horribly disgusting villains. In fact, what makes his antagonists so goosebump-inducing is that they are often so normal, likable even. And many times, you don't know who they are until the end. Even better.

Coben has a way of infusing really jarring, often gruesome plots with beautifully written sentences. In the same book that you read about a woman being bound, gagged, and her throat slashed in front of her friends, you also read a paragraph like this father's thoughts about his daughter:

I kept glancing at her animated face, scrunched up as though imitating an adult. I got hit with that overwhelming feeling. It sneaked up on me. Parents get it from time to time. You are looking at your child and it is an ordinary moment, not like they are on stage or hitting a winning shot, just sitting there, and you look at them and you know that they are your whole life and that moves you and scares you and makes you want to stop time.

Despite the dark plot of this book, there is humor. Paul Copeland has a dynamic, sarcastic relationship with his chief investigator: the tiny, practical-shoed spitfire, Loren Muse. She helps him with both his investigation on the summer camp murders and the side-plot investigation that runs throughout the novel: Paul's prosecution of two privileged white frat boys who brutally raped an African-American stripper.

Coben writes expertly about the legal profession, without being boring as we logically know much of it is. This trial is an interesting and engaging way of moving the plot forward and acknowledging that one's life doesn't come to a grinding halt just because you found out your dead sister might be alive. Paul presents an excellent defense for his victim while observing that sometimes even the strongest evidence isn't enough for some juries. Sometimes, the other side's story is just as compelling.

A trial is two narratives competing for your attention.

The other thing I will say is that this book is rich in culture. Paul Copeland is of Russian descent, and along the way he discovers that his father may have been a part of the KGB. An uncle he trusts with his life comes into play, and we see a few scenes through the older man's memory of life in the USSR before he moved to America. His reflections on growing soft in such a free country are truly poignant.

You live among this ridiculous wealth and you get lost. You worry about nonsense like spirituality and inner health and satisfaction and relationships. You have no idea what it is like to starve, to watch yourself turn to bones.

You might laugh, reading this book. Coben is good at inserting humor at just the right moment before things get too heavy to go on. Every chapter you will get clues that will have you trying to solve the puzzle before the main character does, and I love those kinds of books. The best part: you won't get a clean ending. I hate those. Life rarely lets you tie up everything in a neat little bow, and this is no exception, so be warned all of you who like happily ever afters. Still, if you want an exciting ride and a book with more twists and turns than a mountain road, check The Woods out now.

I'm still reading Infinite Jest and probably will be for some time, but I'm going to start another book in the meantime. Allen and Unwin are sending me a pre-publication copy of Kazuo Ishiguro's new book, The Buried Giant, and I can't wait to pick it up. That will be my 'A book published this year' check.

What are you reading? What do you think I should read? Any ideas on a book with antonyms in the title?