Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015: Maximum Shelf: Ashley Bell

Random House: Ashely Bell by Dean Koontz

Random House: Ashely Bell by Dean Koontz

Random House: Ashely Bell by Dean Koontz

Random House: Ashely Bell by Dean Koontz

Ashley Bell

by Dean Koontz

Despite her somewhat frivolous-sounding name--or perhaps because of it--Bibi Blair, the 22-year-old protagonist of Ashley Bell, is determined to make it clear that she is fierce and dauntless. Engaged to a Navy SEAL currently on an unspecified mission in an unspecified country, she's learned a thing or two about what it means to be strong. And as an author, she understands the power of imagination in shaping a story--even when that story might be her own. These are traits that serve her well when she is diagnosed with a rare form of brain cancer and told she has less than a year to live.

At first, her response to this statement--"Really just one year? We'll see."--appears to be little more than wishful thinking in the face of a horrible prognosis. But it quickly becomes clear that, unlike her laid-back parents--both California surfers--Bibi does not subscribe to the "it will be what it will be" way of life. "She loved her parents, but she was not them. Fate did not rule her. She was master of her fate, the captain of her soul. She would not quit. SURRENDER was not a word that could be made from the lettered tiles of her name."

This desire to be master of her fate is central to both the character of Bibi and the story of Ashley Bell. To the delight of her parents (and shock of her doctors), Bibi quickly overcomes her cancer: she wakes from a deep sleep miraculously and mysteriously cured. But she does not want to live without understanding the why and how of it. Her persistence and search for enlightenment sets Koontz's novel on a fascinating exploration of destiny that is heart-pounding and mind-boggling.

After her release from the hospital, Bibi meets with a masseuse-turned-mystic engaged by her parents, who convinces her that her life was spared in order to allow her to save the life of another--Ashley Bell. With no idea who Ashley Bell is, what (or whom) she needs saving from, or where she might be, Bibi is left confused but more determined than ever to find answers. Her sense of dread and puzzlement grows as her search leads her into darker and darker territories, uncovering sinister plots of neo-Nazis and human sacrifice that raise the stakes in finding Ashley.

Those stakes become higher and the story stranger as eerie childhood memories start to creep into Bibi's mind, unbidden and unwelcome: half-remembered conversations with her long-deceased friend Captain; the arrival of a dog, Olaf, who wandered into her life out of a rainstorm just when she needed a companion; nightmares of waking up with a monster in her room ("The wrapped figure sits in a corner chair, for the moment still. Then it squirms in the confining shroud--and speaks.")

These memories, coupled with an exhausting, persistent feeling of being followed, watched and taunted by those holding Ashley Bell, set Bibi to questioning what is real and what is imagination. After one of her more inexplicable experiences with what might be supernatural or might be just in her head, she realizes that "madness and sanity were two worlds separated from each other by no more than a single step." Did she actually wake with a monster in her bedroom or merely dream it? Did she hear someone knocking at her window or did she imagine it? Are her run-ins with a professor from her college days mere coincidence or proof of some unseen forces at work?

"Bibi sensed that there was something she knew that she didn't know she knew, an elusive understanding that, if she could arrive at it, would make sense of everything." Which is much the way readers will feel throughout this lengthy novel, knowing that there must be some key to understanding the mystery surrounding Bibi and Ashley, but not grasping until the end what that key might be--or how it shapes Bibi's story.

Koontz (Innocence) is a masterful plotter, capable of juggling the many threads of this story without losing sight of the whole. There are many strands: neo-Nazism, details of Bibi's past, a wobbling sense of reality, the story of her SEAL fiance's mission. But Koontz knows how to captivate and surprise; readers will be handsomely rewarded by this well-paced thriller that blurs the line between what is real and what is imagined, between past and present, present and future. Ashley Bell is a rarity of a thriller--one that asks big questions about life and destiny while succeeding in creating such an eerie sense of reality that sleeping with the lights on might seem like a sane idea. --Kerry McHugh

Bantam, $28, hardcover, 9780345545961, December 8, 2015

Random House: Ashely Bell by Dean Koontz

Dean Koontz: The Real Versus the Imagined

photo: Joan Allen

Dean Koontz is a prolific writer of suspense fiction; his works have sold more than 450 million copies worldwide. His latest novel, Ashley Bell, tells the story of a woman who is mysteriously cured of an incurable cancer in order to save a young girl's life. Koontz lives in Southern California with his wife of 49 years and their golden retriever, Anna.

How do you talk about Ashley Bell without giving away too much of the story?

If I had to do a pitch without giving anything away, I would say it's a story about a young writer, Bibi, who is told she has a year to live. And she responds, "We'll see."

It's a novel about family, love, relationships, the power of books and the power of imagination. Bibi is a woman with a tremendous imagination and that is ultimately what allows her to solve her problems.

This is a complex story with a lot of twists and turns. How did you plan for those as you were writing?

Sometimes, when I write a book, I don't know where an idea comes from, but other times I can trace it. In this case, I know the origin of this story: I have a friend who has gliomatosis cerebri, and will not survive. I was dwelling on this, and into my head came the idea for this book. What if a lead character was diagnosed with this brain cancer, and told she had a year or less to live, and then beat it? What if she was just some tough cookie and said, "We'll see about that," determined she can fight anything?

I started the story with that, but had no idea what the explanation of her remission would be. Her character was what came full-blown into my head right away. So I started noodling around with the opening pages, and at some point early on, I suddenly knew the turns this story was going to take. When it hit me, I was like a four-year-old dancing around. But then I had to figure out how to pull it all off. I looked at all I had to do to keep the reader moving along, but also keep the reader in the dark on certain aspects until I was ready to reveal them. Ultimately I just stayed with it and let the characters come to life and guide me.

As a writer herself in the novel, Bibi talks about characters in her work who have taken on lives of their own and moved beyond her control as an author.

That's the case with almost all of the books I've written; if that doesn't happen with some (or all) of the characters, I know something has gone wrong with the book. That's something that's very hard to explain to new writers.

At one point in the novel, Bibi encounters a woman who says to her that as a writer, she behaves a bit like a dictator. She implies that Bibi must be used to bossing people around because that's what she does with characters in her novels. But Bibi makes the point that no, she doesn't have as much control over her characters as this woman thinks.

That's very often the way I feel. It's a wonderful thing; it means that the stories and the characters are coming alive, surprising me.

Do you think those who are new to your books will approach Ashley Bell differently than those who have read everything you've written?

Over the years, every five or six books, I've kind of changed up what I write. That means that from time to time, we have to reach out to readers to help them understand that there is something different going on here. But it still has all the suspense and those elements. I don't envy the publishers that job.

Some people think I write horror books, for example--which I don't think I do, and never intended to do. But once you get that label, it can stick.

I've definitely seen some of your earlier works classified as horror, though I've seen others in pretty much every subgenre of fiction out there. Where would you shelve Ashley Bell?

I just call it fiction, with a large element of suspense. I started back in the '70s crossing genres, which now people do all the time, but when I first started doing it, there was a lot of tussle between me and my publisher at the time. I was told I couldn't do this. I couldn't have an element of fantasy or science fiction in a suspense novel. I couldn't have humor in a suspense novel. That was a big argument; I always felt that if you could laugh with a character from time to time, they became more real--and that increases the tension.

Ashley Bell has elements from a number of genres thrown into it, but I try to take those elements and mainstream them. You don't, for example, have to be a lifelong supernatural fiction reader to appreciate the supernatural elements in it. So I just call it fiction and let it go at that.

Speaking of the supernatural, you very much blur the lines between what is real and what is supernatural and what is imagined throughout Ashley Bell.

I knew there would be elements of the supernatural in the novel—or at least what appears to be the supernatural. I knew that these would challenge Bibi, forcing her to ask what's real and what's imagined.

I like novels in which that element is left for you to wonder about for a long part of the story. What is real and what is being thrown out as red herrings? I like playing those games, and I think readers like that, too.

The scariest ghost story ever written is The Turn of the Screw. When you're reading that, you're always left with a sense of wondering how much is supernatural and how much is the psychology of the characters. It's always kept in the background, and the more it is, the spookier it gets.

Much of Bibi's story is about the question of fate and destiny--how much of her life is controlled by fate versus how much she controls herself. Which side of that argument do you fall on?

That's in many ways the spine of the book. Bibi's parents are very "what will be will be." I know many people like that, and I love them, but I am not that way. I think life is what you make it, so I come down on the side of free will. And Bibi is very much the same. It's not that either way is right or wrong, I just think life is happier when you're in control of it.

Benjamin Percy called this your "most personal book yet." Would you agree?

There are other books that I've written that are very close to my heart, but as for being personal, this is probably as close as it can get. Bibi is a writer, and much about her is reflective of my view of things. I don't always do that--my lead characters generally become who they become--but the further this book went, the more she became a little bit like me. --Kerry McHugh

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