Saturday, March 28, 2015

STRANGER OR FRIEND by Silvia Villalobos: a review

In Silvia Villalobos's novel Stranger or Friend, the suspense starts on the first page as Zoe Sinclair hears distant shrieks coming from the woods. Zoe, a thirty-something Los Angeles lawyer, has just returned to her Wyoming hometown, Pine Vale, population 250. Her mother, Rosemary, has heart problems and Zoe plans to care for her while continuing to work by computer.


She has hardly begun assessing her mother's needs when they receive the shocking news that Zoe's Pine Vale friend Lori has been murdered. It's hard to believe. Pine Vale is such a quiet place. Most people know each other. As Rosemary's friend, a local reverend, says, "In the wilderness we have time to talk, to listen. Time is endless here."


How could anyone murder Lori Green in slow, idyllic Pine View? Sheriff Nolan is working on the case. Zoe also starts investigating it, her legal mind shifting through possible suspects. What about Nick, the emotionally disturbed son of the Herod family next door? Lori had been trying to help someone who needed counseling. Maybe she was counseling Nick and in the process offended him somehow or did something he misinterpreted as a threat.


Or what about Lori's boyfriend, Corey, a man Zoe instinctively dislikes? Even Sheriff Nolan isn't above suspicion.


As Zoe puzzles over the mystery, she reconnects with a childhood friend, Marshall. He's a handyman and house-painter who lives on a ranch. She likes Marshall's solid build and the smell of him, "spicy aftershave and horses."


Another man on Zoe's horizon is the helpful and sympathetic Sebastian, brother of her emotionally unstable neighbor Nick. Zoe is cynical about romance, burned by some of her big-city experiences. However, concerning Sebastian, she wonders, "Was God trying to tell her she needed a man, this man, to force his way into the fortress that had become her life?"


What's the answer to that question? What's the solution to Lori's murder? Answers come but not until after Zoe is attacked by a mystery man in the woods and Lori's boyfriend, Corey, is murdered.


The author keeps us guessing right to the end. Along the way, her apt appeals to our senses make us feel we're right there with Zoe. Examples:

-"Mother's stare lashed at Zoe like a lasso."

-Zoe's stomach churns "like she'd eaten dog meat."

-Zoe sees "a woman near the bench, red hair sticking from under a black hat."

-The smell of the village hints at "purity and pine."


The author develops her characters well. For example, Zoe's mother, whose failing health is a continuing source of tension in the novel, serves as a moral compass for her daughter. She's a woman who "when she needed an answer,"…"didn't stray far from The Book" (The Bible).


Zoe's mother notably accepts and socialize with the Herod family. Some local people don't because the Herods are outsiders, having recently moved to Pine Vale. They also have darker skin and hair than the "uniform-looking people of Pine Vale," who are light-haired and blue-eyed. What's most troubling about the Herods is the secretive way they deal with the disturbed son of the family, Nick.


Zoe doesn't understand Nick but tries hard to do so. Examples:

-"Nick Herod's suffering cut deep into a mental realm unknown to her."

-He's a man who "lives in a different reality."

-Nick may be suffering from a "co-morbid condition—two or more mental disorders feeding off one another."


A reoccurring suspicion in the book is that Nick may indeed be Lori's murderer. In the end he turns out to have played a far different role in Stranger or Friend's captivating web of mystery and suspense.


Stranger or Friend is available on Amazon here: . More information is on Silvia’s website, .


Elma Schemenauer CONSIDER THE SUNFLOWERS: 1940s-era novel about love, Mennonites, faith, & betrayal.  Info at   Order from Chapters online or Borealis Press


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