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Love is Red (Book review)

LoveAuthor Sophie Jaff set high goals for herself in writing her first novel. The publicity material included in the HarperCollins review copy of Love is Red quote Ms. Jaff as stating: “I wanted to be the Stephen King for women. I wanted to bring back the idea of elevated horror, I wanted to write the story of a modern day haunting. I wanted to tell the story of a woman in her mid thirties dating in New York but also I wanted to include everything else I loved: elements of horror, mystery, romance, love affairs, serial killers, cryptic religious and universal themes, the underside of normalcy all set in New York. I wanted to capture the beauty and the loneliness and the pockets of joy that come from living a single life in this city.” That’s a pretty tall order. Does Love is Red attain the lofty aspirations? In many ways, it does. It is certainly an impressive debut.

The narrative is told from the viewpoints of its two principal characters: A serial killer known as the Sickle Man, and the woman he most covets to be his victim, Katherine Emerson. As the murderer ramps up the female body count, Katherine becomes involved with two hot guys who happen to be chums. It is an inopportune time for romance. Sex in the city has taken on a potentially lethal tinge, but somehow the elusive Sickle Man manages to work his way into the bedrooms of his prey. He leaves no physical traces about himself, but carves up the women’s bodies with arcane symbols.

Jaff adheres to established genre conventions, but imbues them with intelligent literary embellishments that enhance complexity and interest. What ultimately impresses is the prose. For example, in two sentences the author wittily distills the character of Katherine’s mother: “My mother’s manner is like a folding chair. Theoretically you can sit on it, but it will offer you the minimum of comfort or support.”

The Sickle Man is poetic, often employing colors to verbally punctuate sensations. For him, “Love is red” and “Lust is the color of honey dribbled from a spoon; it smells like other people’s popcorn at the movies.” He is also analytical and introspective: “One of the best things about following someone who doesn’t know she’s being followed is the exquisite feeling of control. It tastes smooth and cool, like sucking a mint during a play, like a secret.”

Because the novel is intended as the first installment in a trilogy, it’s a bit difficult to fully evaluate it as a work in and of itself. The book ends with what amounts to an ellipsis. There’s more to follow; threads are dangling and situations are unresolved. Since the author hooks the reader with her captivating writing style, and engages through smart characterization, it’s a given to want to be onboard for the next book in the series.

The writer of Love is Red stated her desire to be “the Stephen King for women.” She also does what appears to be a tip of the hat to horror master Ira Levin. Sophie Jaff is determined and talented. It will be fascinating to follow her work and see what she brings to the second novel.

Love is Red is now available via HarperCollins

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About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. Currently she writes essays for Scream Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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