Good people making bad choices. Bad people making good choices. I have a love/hate relationship with fiction about characters who take that first wrong step…then the next, and then another, until they are so far away from where they were meant to go that they have almost no choices left at all, except the worst ones.
I’m fascinated by how easily our lives can be upended by taking one path instead of the other. Maybe it’s because writing about people with messy lives feels comforting – no matter what’s going on in my own life, at least I’m not dealing with my best friend’s betrayal and missing memories (After All I’ve Done) or an ex-boyfriend trying to ruin my life while also ruining my rental apartment (We Knew All Along). Or maybe I like telling stories that show how complicated life can be, how easily we can get off track, but how gratifying it is to turn yourself around and end up perhaps not in the place you expected to be, but the one in which you needed to be. If life is about lessons, I like seeing which ones my characters can learn. And sometimes, yes, I’m the cruel author who thinks “how much worse could this really get?”
I say love/hate, because I love to write about people and their choices and their relationships, and how they all fit together, but when I’m consuming movies or books, I’m the person shouting “no, don’t do that! Why would you do that? Whyyyyyyy?” And honestly, that’s the reaction I kind of want my readers to have when reading one of my books! Over the top? Yes! Twist and turns? Yes, again! Stretch the line of credulity, because life is weird, and books can be even weirder. As a reader, take me to places I didn’t expect, convince me I believe the hard-to-swallow, invest me in the lives, relationships, emotions and yes, the bad choices of characters I care about.
Here are some books I have enjoyed screaming about:
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
I’ve always loved psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators. I listened to this book on a seven-hour drive and was entirely captivated the entire time. With every twist and turn, I shouted and bemoaned the main character’s fate. I hated the choices she made, even when I understood them and empathized with them. Every time she made her life more of a mess, I was more invested in seeing what happened next. I wanted her to come out of it all okay in the end, but I honestly wasn’t sure if she could or would! I also liked the slow burn of this book with its multiple narrators and interwoven stories.
The Girl in the Mirror, Rose Carlyle
I flew through this book as fast as my fingers could swipe my Kindle screen. First off, sibling relationships always have the possibility to be fraught with decades of tension. The emotional connection between siblings offers the possibility for so much drama, I love it! And twin sisters who look identical but have very different personalities and lives? I was all in from the first word. Add to that a truly harrowing twist that only gets worse and worse with every decision the main character makes, and this book had me on edge the entire time. Betrayal abounds from all directions, and every time I thought I had it figured out, some new plot twist came along. The sailboat setting was perfectly creepy, too, especially since I get seasick and would never, ever put myself on a boat out in the middle of the ocean…where anything bad could happen…
The Lake, Natasha Preston
This YA thriller was packed with everything I adore, particularly bad choices that have come back to haunt the main characters in present day. I’m a big fan of the “what happens after” stories that tell about the aftermath of something big. As a fan of old-school slasher flicks, this book gave me the same vibe as some eighties horror movie classics like Friday the 13th and Sleepaway Camp. Twisty, turny and angsty, this book made me very glad my parents never sent me to summer camp, and the ending…fans of Natasha Preston know she doesn’t hold back in her final chapters, but this was my first read from her and I was left utterly blown away.
The Family Upstairs, Lisa Jewell
When I was younger, I read a lot of books about people inheriting unexpected wealth or somehow being whisked away from their humdrum lives into a big house, something completely different from where they’d been before. There’s quite a difference between Little Lord Fauntleroy and Flowers in the Attic, though, and as I got older, I continued to gravitate toward books with darker themes and stories in which that sudden windfall turns out to be not so great, after all. In The Family Upstairs, Libby inherits an enormous house owned by her birth parents, who died long ago. At first, it seems like it’s going to turn her life around, but soon enough we learn there are dark secrets surrounding the house and her family, too. The bad decisions of people from her past absolutely are on target to wreck her future, and I was totally captivated with every new twist and turn! I’m a big fan of Jewell’s other books as well, and this did not disappoint.
The Secrets of Us, Lucinda Berry
Sisters again, this time, not of blood but of the heart. The Secrets of Us also explores the aftermath of tragedy and how it continues to affect the main characters in their present lives. Full of emotional depth, this book is twisty and turny but also solidly centered in the sibling relationship and all its ups and downs. My heart ached for the sisters Krystal and Nichole and everything they’d been through – and everything Krystal was willing to do for her sister. While their bad choices weren’t exactly their fault, they still impacted the entire story.