I'll admit it: I'm a wuss. The very premise of Suzanne Collins's runaway YA novel The Hunger Games--a 16-year-old girl, Katniss Everdeen, takes the place of her younger sister (chosen via a lottery that favors the rich) in the Hunger Games, an annual televised competition in which 24 unlucky teenagers fight to the death--scared me, and the only reason I kept with it was because, being a YA novel, I figured it couldn't get too terrifying or gory. And boy was it worth it.
The Hunger Games is suspenseful, with a realistic, no-nonsense, kick-ass girl main character, and a touch of romance (nicely tempered by Katniss's prudence and cynicism). The story is told in first-person present tense, making the suspense palpable. This aspect of the story line is so well executed that I didn't even notice it was in present tense until a friend I let thumb through the book pointed it out to me.
It's not full of nonstop action (if it were, it would be too much for me to handle), but it's definitely a fast-paced page turner. The characters are relatively simple tropes, aside from the well-developed main character. This is the beginning of a series, so the male protagonist, Peeta, will probably be more fleshed out in future books, and this being told from Katniss's point of view, she still has a lot to discover about him.
Language is pedestrian and smooth and doesn't interrupt the story. Setting is well established but not particularly distinctive. It's a near future world (without a lot of sci fi-esque detail), and the forested arena drives the story. When it's rainy, Katniss takes refuge in a cave for a couple of days, and she and the reader get a break from the constant worry of her being killed at any second. Forest bird calls signal that an ally is safe or if trouble has befallen. The so-called Gamemakers can control weather and create "natural" disasters to drive the players together to battle.
I'm mostly at a loss for readalikes. Searches turn up other YA novels, but, from an adult's perspective, I didn't come up with much. Stephen King reviewed the book for Entertainment Weekly and pointed out Battle Royale and his own The Running Man and The Long Walk as similar in premise (which naturally features suspense). But those will probably be too intense for me. In my reading, the two closest things I've come across (which feature a smattering of suspense, a likable, relatable, strong main character, and a quick, easy read) are Jordan Summers's Red and Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. Maybe even (dare I say it?) Twilight--but only for those who can stand mushy romance stuff, and many argue Bella isn't likable or strong. Looks like I fell into the YA trap, too.
Any suspense-lite for adults you can recommend? Is romantic suspense particularly scary?