Monday, June 25, 2012

PLAYING DEAD - Julia Heaberlin

First line: "Despite its name, Ponder, Texas, pop. 1,101, isn't a very good place to think."

When Tommie McCloud, prodigal daughter, returns home to Texas for the funeral of her father, she finds more than sympathy waiting for her. She finds a letter from a stranger in Chicago, Illinois. The stranger believes Tommie may be her daughter, kidnapped over thirty years ago.

The woman Tommie always believed to be her mother has been trapped inside her own head for years now, suffering from early-onset dementia. If Tommie is going to unearth the truth about her family tree, she is going to have to investigate for herself.  At some point in life  we probably all have fantasies that we're actually living a lie. We aren't really who we think we are. But for Tommie discovering the Chicago stranger is the wife of a convicted killer is only the beginning of her trip through a labyrinth of nightmares and lies.  Will discovering the truth ultimately destroy her or set her free?

PLAYING DEAD has just earned a ticket to the top of my favorite debuts of 2012 list. While the plot concept is not a new one (how many really are?) the puzzling structure, compelling characters, rich atmosphere and dazzling imagery all add up to a stimulating page-turner of a thriller.

The novel is told in first person from the perspective of Tommie, a character composite of contradictions. Tommie was a champion rodeo roper and a classical music student when both paths were cut off by a overzealous steer.

"I would describe myself as temporarily off-course ever since eight hundred pounds of steer stomped on my wrist fourteen years ago in a rodeo arena in Lubbock, Texas, knocking me from the pedestal of my saddle into mortality."

Tommie is simultaneously courageous and independent while also vulnerable and reliant. In other words, she's real. Julia Heaberlin surrounds Tommie with a supporting cast as dynamic as her protagonist: the eccentric younger sister who, despite a substantial wealth, lives in a double-wide trailer, decorated in spray-paint swirls; a hard-ass, security contractor ex-boyfriend who exudes Texas machismo, which is ironically dependent on a heart relatively the size of, well, Texas; a seemingly crazy mobster's wife; a reporter who doesn't really act like a reporter and a journalist who fits the stereotype almost to a T.

For me the most stunning element of PLAYING DEAD is Heaberlin's atmosphere. She doesn't use setting as a character per se, but rather the setting is very much a part of each of her characters. Heaberlin has a special talent for helping her readers feel it as much as her characters do:

"I've been told that growing up in Ponder must have been an idyllic childhood, picket fence and all. I tell those people I'm more familiar with barbed wire and have the scars on my belly to prove it."

About that same place she says,

"But home is also endless rolling land, shimmering heat, sweet memories that thrum in the air with the cicadas. Home pulls at me like a magnet. Even when my body is hundreds of miles away, my soul stays behind, clinging to the live oak by the cement pond where I learned to dog paddle."

When Tommie leaves the land she knows best, Heaberlin helps her readers experience the urban setting as Tommie does:

"I stepped out of the hotel onto the pedestrian traffic on Michigan Avenue, which was vibrating with aggression to the ranch girl like me. A bike messenger cursed and swerved when I stepped into his path; a grinning homeless person punched me, hard, on the arm; a swinging briefcase rapped one of my knuckles, all before I reached a café a couple of blocks from the hotel. The businessman with the briefcase kept on walking and barking into his headset. In Texas, I would have would up with an apology and maybe even a date."

Just as the setting threads its fingers into the creation of Heaberlin's characters, so does her sarcastic, sometimes caustic humor. She's able to find the humor in some of the darkest elements of the plot, some of the most serious characters of the story, even some of the most beautiful elements of the setting:

"We passed lush, rolling lawns, every blade of grass the same color and height, as if a band of Oompa Loompas used a paintbrush and manicure scissors each morning to maintain perfection."

"'No. Supposably, it's a fact.' The word supposably always set my teeth on edge. It was a Texas colloquialism used by a quarter of the state. It's probably in the dictionary now a few skips ahead of Sarah Palin's refudiate."

"'When you have five hours,' she said, 'I'll tell you how I have about three-fourths of an ounce of Tom Cruise's blood running in my veins.' She grinned. 'Enough to brag about at parties but not enough to drop Jesus for Scientology.'"

Heaberlin obviously loves language and knows how to use it - to entertain, to awe, to frighten, to connect. PLAYING DEAD is a debut you aren't going to want to miss. I see a very bright future for Julia Heaberlin.

PLAYING DEAD is available in trade paperback from Ballantine Books (ISBN: 9780345527011) and also on audio from AudioGo, narrated by Madeleine Lambert.

My review of PLAYING DEAD is part of the TLC blog tour and they were nice enough to provide a copy for me to give away to a lucky reader. So, if you'd like a chance to win this one, tell me in the comments one thing you'd miss most about where you live if you had to leave. 

The contest is open to anyone with a mailing address (no P.O. boxes) in the US or Canada. I'll take entries through Friday. Good luck.

And congratulations to Jen (who has a great name) and blogs at Crazy for Books. She won GONE GIRL from last week's contest.

Happy Reading!


Karen B June 25, 2012 at 7:25 AM  

I'd miss the 4 seasons we have here in MN. Even winter! :)


Aggie June 25, 2012 at 9:19 AM  

I would miss the water that surrounds me wherever I go ~ the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario!

Anita Yancey June 25, 2012 at 10:54 AM  

I would miss the warm weather we have here. I would also miss my large yard that I have finally gotten the plants and flowers just the way I like them. Please enter me. Thanks!

Carol N Wong June 25, 2012 at 12:48 PM  

I would miss the friendly people here in Allen, TX. They stop their cars to let you cross the road. They never give you one of those quick smiles that drop and then go back to boredom. It is also so easy to get into a conversation with them.


Lilian June 25, 2012 at 1:54 PM  

"...earned a ticket to the top of my favorite debuts of 2012 list." you just about sold me with that line! And I am impressed with Julia's writing (especially that first line!)

I live in Honolulu, Hawaii
and aside from the beautiful blue oceans/beaches..I would miss fresh air, and drinking water that doesn't need to be filtered. And shave ice (Hawaii knows how to make flavored water taste good.)
Lilian @ A Novel Toybox

rhonda June 25, 2012 at 8:17 PM  

i live in california the beauiful weather freindly laid back lifeststyle.

Kim Roberts June 25, 2012 at 9:05 PM  

I live in Washington State, the Pacific Northwest. We have access to the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound, the mountains and rivers. My house is located on a dead-end street, with one side bordering Fort Steilacoom Park (mostly woods, up here)and its very peaceful, quiet and relaxing. There are many wild birds, squirrels,chipmunks, possums, deer, coyotes, and bald eagles once in awhile! That is what I would miss if I had to leave: the natural ambience around my neighborhood.

Lauren June 25, 2012 at 9:14 PM  

The ocean. I've learned I can live without many things, but I can't live far from the ocean.

Elizabeth June 26, 2012 at 2:08 AM  

I would miss the flat plains of Oklahoma, endless blue skies and distant horizons. Many people love mountains but I am a confirmed plains dweller, with pastures and crops surrounding rural highways. newton_robin[at]

Linda Rodriguez June 26, 2012 at 12:27 PM  

I'd miss Kansas City's vibrant arts and literary scene--and barbecue and jazz.
lindalynetterodriguez (at) gmail (dot) com

Patrick Murphy June 29, 2012 at 10:02 AM  

I live 10 minutes walk from the beach in York, Maine. I like the fact that I can hear the sounds of the ocean at almost any time.

skkorman June 29, 2012 at 7:45 PM  

I would miss the South Florida beaches, the weather, and the people if I left!

skkorman AT bellsouth DOT net

Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours July 22, 2012 at 11:44 AM  

Thanks for being on the tour!

Julia Heaberlin August 2, 2012 at 3:58 PM  

A belated thank you for all of your kind, thoughtful words about Playing Dead. You can't know how much a review like this means during the debut process! Your blog made my day, week, summer!

Julia Heaberlin

hal May 1, 2013 at 2:34 AM  

I read "Playing Dead" and really loved it! an engrossing, suspenseful book by an important new author. I couldn't put it down!

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