What do you look for when you read a book? An escape? A glimpse into someone’s past? A way to get in touch with your emotions? Or all of the above? One of the reasons I enjoy reading is because it exercises both my imagination and my emotions. I read a lot of books, and those that I remember the most–that stand out–are the most intense ones. That’s why J.R. Johansson’s books grab me every time: their intensity. Her latest book–The Row, which is set to be released in October of 2016–doesn’t disappoint.
Listen to this description of the plot on the back cover: “Seventeen-year-old Riley Becket is no stranger to prison. Her father is a convicted serial killer on death row who has always maintained that he was falsely accused. Riley has never missed a visit with him. She wholeheartedly believes that he is innocent. Then, a month before the execution date, Riley’s world is rocked when, in an attempt to help her move on, her father secretly confesses to her that he actually did carry out the murders. He takes back his words almost immediately, but she cannot forget what he’s told her.” Whoa. It’s intense before you even read the first page.
Different Kinds of Intensity
But as one reads the book, one finds that it is not so much an intensity of action, per se, although there is some of that, but an intensity of emotion. It’s the feeling of waiting on pins-and-needles throughout the entire book for an important question to be answered. It’s not only the question of whether or not her father really is guilty, but also the question of who Riley has to trust in order to answer the question. There is the son of the police officer who arrested her father, a young man who has problems of his own but who vehemently wants to help her. And there is her mother, who strives so hard to protect Riley from the long-term aftermath of her husband’s conviction but who struggles under the weight she holds.
This book is most definitely, then, a mystery, whereas her previous books–the Nightwalker series, in particular–had definite horror elements. There are no vampires or werewolves or boys who can’t sleep because they see the nightmares of the person with whom they last made eye contact during the day. It’s different than her last book Cut Me Free in that it doesn’t deal with abuse. Just by virtue of those differences, it speaks to J.R.’s talent as a writer.
But its strengths are more than that. Its strength is in its pacing. Too many mysteries get strung out far too long, with not enough punch along the way. The Row brings to mind wisps of Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas books, dramatic and tense and full of twists and turns that keep one guessing until the very last, nail-biting end. There were so many turns, my neck got sore. But all of those turns pushed inexorably toward the final conclusion–always those questions of whether or not her father is guilty and who can she trust.
And its other strength is characters that seem so real. Listen to this, from page 237:
“Moving around the chair, I inch up so close to him that he fills my senses with everything that is Jordan to me. I’m not sure if it’s his cologne or what, but it smells warm and spicy. It’s the kind of scent that I wish could be made into a large, soft blanket that I could wrap myself up in.”
Or this, from page 151:
“When I finally make myself look up with the intention of brushing him off, I find that I can’t. A deep frown creases his brow and makes the shadows around his eyes appear deep, haunting. He seems nervous and worried–and scared. Exactly what I feel. I don’t know how to react to that. Jordan should be my opposite. He is the son of the cop who put my father in prison. His life has always represented justice and the right of the law, while my life represented injustice and the mistakes of humanity. How can we possibly ever be on the same page?”
When I say that the characters seem real, I mean that their emotional reactions are in perfect proportion to the many plot turns and revelations. The ability to create those reactions and then develop a plot out of them that doesn’t lag or get bogged down in emotion is another mark of a good writer.
All in all, then, The Row by J.R. Johansson was a delight to read.