Friday, August 23, 2019

Book Review: Theme Music

By Jami Deise

There are some things that just naturally go together: Peanut butter and jelly. Ham and cheese. Crabs and beer (that last one might just be a Maryland thing). Other things don’t seem to go together at all, but once you try them, they work. Like pineapple on pizza. Who would have thought that would work?

Similarly, books are an almost non-detectable melding of voice and genre. A writer’s use of language creates an atmosphere that creates humor, suspense, dread, or other emotion. Depending on which words are used, the same setting could create anticipation or fear.

That’s how it usually works, anyway.

Maryland author T. Marie Vandelly turns this rule on its head in her debut, Theme Music. While the book is a psychological thriller, it’s written in the tone of chick lit. By playing against expectation in this way, Vandelly actually amplifies the horror. It’s an interesting choice that might annoy horror fans while attracting fans in other genres.

The protagonist of Theme Music is Dixie Wheeler, who, as a one-year-old, was the sole survivor when her father killed the rest of their family (mother and three older brothers) with an axe, then dragged a knife across his own throat. Having been raised by her mother’s sister, Dixie is now 26 and looking forward to moving into a place with her boyfriend, Garrett. But when she spies her childhood home on the market, she decides to move in, even after the nosy neighbor tells her the place is haunted. After Dixie tells him the truth about the house, Garrett decides not to move in with her. So Dixie is alone when she starts to have visions of her murdered family. And when her aunt tells her that her uncle never believed Dixie’s father killed the family, she becomes determined to re-open the investigation.

Oh, and there’s a love triangle among Dixie, Garrett, and Dixie’s childhood crush and former neighbor, Rory, whose last girlfriend died mysteriously…

At times, Theme Music feels like Amityville Horror (and some of the descriptions may be too explicit for sensitive readers.) At others, it’s more like Bridget Jones’s Diary. But strangely enough, it works. That may be because the tone (it’s written in first person) completely matches that of a millennial who’s been beaten down by life. Or perhaps the unintentional humor of certain metaphors and phrases helps to mitigate the effects of the graphic imagery. And there are a couple of really nice twists that keep the pacing quick.

My only quibble was with the ending, which seemed both predictable and illogical. More broadly, an issue with psychological thrillers is that, with a necessarily small cast, it’s fairly easy to evaluate possible villains. Part of the fun of reading mysteries is guessing correctly who the bad guy is. But the best experience is being fooled in a way that makes the reader want to go back and take a second look at the book, to see what clues she missed. While Vandelly isn’t there as a writer yet, I’m confident that’s a level she’ll be able to obtain.

Thanks to Dutton for the book in exchange for an honest review.

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