thriller reviews

Take A Very Long Walk In The Woods With Diane Les Becquets’ ‘Breaking Wild’

breaking wild

Lions and elk estrus and bears, oh my! A survivalist thriller with two heroines, one lost in the Colorado woods and another determined to find her, Diane Les Becquets’ debut novel Breaking Wild is unlike my usual diet of thrillers and mysteries. And I’m okay with that. Any book that has a blurb from my girl Tana French on the cover has my full attention.

Amy Raye is a hunter, a woman who likes killing elk with a bow during hunting season, when men are running around spooking elk with their guns. She’s a woman whose husband doesn’t let her store guns in the house. Although I’m not too familiar with hunting culture in general, Amy Raye seems like an anti-stereotype to me, a tough and unapologetic woman who believes in herself and her capabilities far past society’s expectation for women. Amy Raye is determined to bag an elk herself on the last day of the season, and she heads off alone in the early morning. When she doesn’t make it back to camp, the local authorities are called in.

Pru could be Amy Raye’s double in many ways, and I confess I got their story lines confused in the beginning of the book. Pru is a single mom, a park ranger with a dedicated search dog Kona, who can’t help but think about the woman lost out in the cold even when she comes in from the search.

In alternating chapters, we learn about each woman’s past, the things that have shaped them into such strong characters, their secrets, and their regrets. These backstories are interlaced with the actual search for Amy Raye, as she struggles to survive in grisly circumstances.

The first half of the book moves slowly, as it describes Amy Raye’s hunt, and her missteps. Although this feels tedious at times, it may be necessary to give the book its gravity and plausibility. I’m just not sure I felt the urgency between the history of the characters and the current search. I found myself disliking the back and forth between the characters and their histories. Sometimes it feels like a stall static to build tension, and this was one of those times.

If the idea of hunting freaks you out so much you simply can’t read a book about characters who do it, then you might want to skip this one. If you loved Gary Paulsen books as a kid, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Descent by Tim Johnston, or that movie where the guy cuts off his own arm, you might want to check out this book.

Breaking Wild on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Advertisements

Michael Kardos Asks Us To Believe In ‘Before He Finds Her’

before he finds her

It was the truths that made the people grotesques. The old man had quite an elaborate theory concerning the matter. It was his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.

–Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio; from the epigraph of Before He Finds Her

Michael Kardos published his debut novel The Three-Day Affair in 2012, announcing himself on the thriller scene with an attention-grabbing hook. After stopping at a convenience store, three old friends watch in astonishment as one of their group pulls a woman out of the store and screams “Drive!” as he throws her into the car. In this book, the implausibilities of the scenario didn’t occur to me as I was reading. Kardos is that good at telling stories, and creating characters reacting naturally in unnatural situations.

Now, in his follow-up, Before He Finds Her, Kardos once again asks readers to suspend their disbelief to get an ultimate thrill. Ramsey Miller, a fatalistic truck driver, murdered his wife in 1991. His three-year-old daughter, Meg, survived. The murderous Miller was never caught. Meg is now Melanie Denison, and under the watchful eye of her aunt and uncle, she has led a sheltered life (why all the “M” names? I’m not sure). Her dad is still out there, a murderer-at-large.

But Meg/Melanie is about to turn 18, and she is tired of living in fear. She wants the tragedy of her childhood to be over. She returns to her hometown, the scene of the crime, and seeks out the journalist who covered the case so many years ago. If the police can’t give her justice and peace, she’ll find some for herself. But what really happened? And if the police weren’t able to solve the crime, can a seventeen-year-old girl do much better? Is the truth lost in time?

If you go all in, put your foot on the throttle and flip the pages a bit too fast until you reach the end, you will love this book. It is how I read, and I finished Before He Finds Her thinking it was nearly flawless. If you are a bit of a skeptic, however, as I am once I finish a book and begin thinking about it a bit more, mulling over it like I do a cup of coffee in the morning, Kardos asks a lot of us. There are several twists and turns here that make the book feel brilliantly plotted, but the plot itself may not be firmly rooted in reality.

With this book, Kardos proves himself here to stay, and I can’t wait to see what he does next. I hope he leaves some of the more unbelievable plot points out next time, as he has shown he can write a tense scene. I’d love to see what he does without the bells and whistles.

Before He Finds Her on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Jonathan Kellerman’s ‘The Murderer’s Daughter,’ A Victim’s Advocate Goes Vigilante

the murderer's daughter

Who can resist a novel with a title like The Murderer’s Daughter?

Not me.

Jonathan Kellerman’s newest release, The Murderer’s Daughter tells the story of survivor Grace. Grace grew up brilliant but fearful, passed from abusive (murderously so, hence the title) family to stereotypically unstable foster homes.

Now, a sought after therapist, considered a “victim whisperer” by those who need just such a soothsayer most, Grace’s dark childhood has caught up with her. A mysterious man seeks a session with her, intrigued by a little-known paper she wrote on families of criminals. Is he related to an offender himself? Does he look familiar?

Before Grace can find answers to any of these questions, the man loses his nerve and stumbles out of the session. Out of the session and right back into the grips of whatever violent element haunted his life.

There was a lot to love about The Murderer’s Daughter, and a lot I just wasn’t feeling. I appreciated Grace as a brilliant, independent, and manipulative woman, and the story of her upbringing interweaved with modern day was as intriguing as the mystery itself. As for the mystery, much of Grace’s investigation was done on the internet–while this may be realistic, it isn’t exactly the most thrilling way to reveal information to a reader.

In the age of Dexter, books with a bad seed turned to justice are all the rage: Chelsea Cain’s One Kick is my favorite thus far. If you love the vigilante justice of Dexter and the heady analysis of psychological thrillers, check out The Murderer’s Daughter.

The Murderer’s Daughter on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Linwood Barclay starts new trilogy with ‘Broken Promise’

Book Review-Broken Promise

I was excited to dig in to blockbuster thriller writer Linwood Barclay’s Broken Promise after I read his stand-alone mystery Trust Your Eyes. Barclay built Trust Your Eyes around a concept wacky enough to be truly memorable in a field of lookalike plots. A schizophrenic man obsessed with a Google Street View-like program, who spends his hours touring streets all over the world, sees something he shouldn’t. Trust Your Eyes is definitely worth picking up, if you haven’t checked it out!

So what about Broken Promise? It centers in Promise Falls, a small town with all the dressings: cops with inflated egos, an amusement park and newspaper both gone belly up, and a nefarious ex-Mayor circling for power. As I went into the book cold, I didn’t realize that Broken Promise is the first of a planned trilogy about Promise Falls. So (a bit of a spoiler alert here), those expecting loose ends packaged up nicely in a bow, be prepared! You’ll have to wait for books two and three to find out what’s rotten in this not-so-ideal American setting.

And there’s definitely something stinking in this city–attempted rapes on the college campus, squirrels hung in an odd formation in a local park, mannequins with a veiled threat riding on the Ferris wheel in the abandoned amusement park after hours. In the midst of some of this madness is out-of-luck journalist David Harwood, who returned to his hometown of Promise Falls for a job at the local paper just before it went out of business. Now he’s unemployed, and living with his parents and his young son.

While the strange happenings in Promise Falls are intriguing background noise, the main plot of this novel centers around David’s cousin Marla. Marla’s been slightly unhinged since she lost her baby a few years ago. When David arrives at her home to deliver some food, and finds Marla caring for a baby boy, he knows something isn’t right.

This mystery wasn’t my favorite–it seemed fairly obvious to me, once all the characters were introduced, what exactly had happened. However, because I’ve enjoyed a previous book from Barclay so much, and because he’s so highly praised as a popular thriller author, I’ll be tuning in to the rest of the series and seeing what’s in store for David and the town of Promise Falls.

Broken Promise on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Good Games Go Wrong In Christopher J. Yates’s ‘Black Chalk’

black chalk

Who doesn’t love a game, meant to spice up a dull year, played like a train crash? A story of reckless fun gone dangerously wrong? This game is played by six friends in their first year at Oxford, too young to imagine repercussions, but too pompous to back down.

Six people, a number of rounds, each one separated by a week. A game of consequences, consequences which must be performed to prevent elimination. These consequences take the form of psychological dares, challenges designed to test how much embarrassment and humiliation the players can stand. Throughout the rounds players who fail to perform their consequences are eliminated until only one is left standing.

–Christopher J. Yates, Black Chalk

And the award, at the end of this game, will not only be the glory of winning, but also 10,000 pounds.

The book is told in a now and then style, flashbacks taking the narrator back to the naivety of youth, a time before the game got out of hand, before tics and affectations fully blossomed into obsessive compulsive rituals. Before hearts were broken. Before lives were lost.

The story here is complicated, masterfully crafted, and full of twists that make a review difficult without giving too much away. Although it was released in the U.K. last year, it was released in the U.S. last week with a stunner of a cover (shown above). Pick it up and prepare to be boggled several times over!

Read the first two chapters here.

Black Chalk on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Post-Pandemic World Is Playground For The Rich In Taylor Antrim’s ‘Immunity’

immunity

What’s natural is the microbe.

All the rest–health, integrity, purity (if you like)–is a product of the human will, of a vigilance that must never falter.

Immunity, epigram, from The Plague by Albert Camus

Officials said the best line of defense was vigilance. Report symptoms immediately. Yours. Family members’. Friends’. Get the TX test every three months. Ninety Days… It’s the Law ran the ads. Carry your MED card at all times. Don’t gamble with symptoms. Don’t travel if you’re sick. These messages had been drummed into the public through news and magazine stories and stacks of bestselling how-to books on surviving another full-scale TX pandemic–which would come, the scientists said. It was just a matter of time.

Immunity

Taylor Antrim’s Immunity tells the story of a post-plague world, a Spanish flu-like epidemic (named TX, after the state of its origins) adapted for our modern times. The Department of Health has ballooned into Big Brother, setting up checkpoints on corners and scanning bodies on sidewalks. Anarchists cough on people as an act of rebellion, terrifying everyone they hack and sneeze at as they run madly through the streets. And then there’s the rich, that ever-present buzz of an upper-class doing better than the rest of us, hovering above the fray, as the elite do, and ready to take some sort of action.

In Antrim’s post-pandemic New York, the wealthy get bored and things get ugly. Protagonist Catherine finds herself, after a vague job interview, working in a sort of concierge call center for the city’s wealthy men. Requests like the perfect gift, reservations at a great restaurant–you give these gals a call, and they’ll take care of it for you. But there’s a bigger vision behind the company, an idea of real experience taken to an uncomfortable maximum level. There’s a place called The Hideaway, there’s an endless supply of coke and booze. And then the guns come out.

Aside from this plot, a sort of rich men gone wild, Catherine is implanted with what promises to be a chip providing immunity from the TX virus. A perk of the job, of being amongst the rich and elite. But nothing is so simple in this complicated world, and nothing comes for free.

The New York Times book review hails Immunity as an “effortlessly assembled” novel. After reading the Times’s triumphant review, I bought Immunity in a sort virus-mad fervor, imagining a book full of dreary desperation and high stakes health risks like David Quammen’s non-fiction tome Spillover. What I got, the plot and statement made by Immunity, was far from what I imagined. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It’s different. It’s strange in a 12 Monkeys-conspiracy-The Most Dangerous Game type of way. Instead of being the usual dystopian fare, Immunity questions our desire for dystopia in general, and our need to take the power back from greater traumas surrounding us.

Immunity on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In Robin Kirman’s ‘Bradstreet Gate,’ College Is Hell

bradstreet gate

Robin Kirman’s Bradstreet Gate elicits strong emotions, good and bad. I read it in two days. I saw its premise online and knew I needed an advanced copy STAT. Once I found one and dove in, I wasn’t able to put it down, causing sleep deprivation and a neglect of life’s other demands for a day.

Bradstreet Gate focuses on the bright, beautiful, blonde Georgia Calvin, the crush of all young Harvard men from the day she steps foot on campus. Aloof from years spent transferring schools, trailing after a successful photographer father, the story follows Georgia and those put under her spell through their years at Harvard and beyond. The story is juicy and unpredictable from the start, as Georgia becomes involved with headstrong and moody professor Rufus Storrow. We meet Georgia’s small circle of friends as they each take turns narrating, illuminating their own motives, insecurities, and views of each other. There is young Republican, bow-tie wearing Charlie, and cold, determined journalist Alice.

Harvard’s small enclave is rocked when a student, Julie Patel, is murdered on campus. Friendships begin to fall apart as Professor Storrow, Georgia’s secret lover, is the prime suspect in the murder. But this isn’t primarily a mystery novel. It is a book of betrayals and hidden motives, our private definitions of success and those we measure ourselves against.

The novel is less literary than some of the college-friends-gone-wrong fare we’ve known and loved: it is compared to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History in its blurb, which I’m glad I didn’t see until after I completed it. If I had gone into this book with Secret History-esque expectations, I would have been disappointed. Based on plot alone, I went in expecting a soap-opera-style drama set on a college campus, and I feel those expectations were certainly met.

Professor Storrow reminded me of an unhinged Christian Grey, popping up at odd times, saying inappropriate things, making demands. The murder, while a background mystery, just hung like a foreboding cloud over this small group of friends and their already strained relationships. Those relationships, these characters, are the focus of the book. If you don’t fall in love with Georgia Calvin, you’ll definitely want to be her. The fiercely disciplined, slightly unhinged Alice is the perfect combination of wicked and vulnerable.

I read this on my Kindle and when I got to the last page, I kept madly poking the screen to get to something more. If you are the type of person who needs their endings nicely tied up, you might want to skip this one or prepare to be infuriated at the end. But if you can tolerate ending with questions unanswered, Bradstreet Gate’s characters are compelling and the story of their high points and struggles will keep you riveted.

Bradstreet Gate on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Hempel And Climent Bare Their Teeth In ‘The Hand That Feeds You’

the hand that feeds you

Imagine your bright, brave friend is dying of cancer. Imagine she falls in love, in spite of her illness. And then, imagine your friend betrayed, as the man she fell in love with was already married to another woman. Inspired rather than scorned, she decides to write a book about the experience. And then she dies, less than a chapter of the novel created.

Is this the plot of A.J. Rich’s The Hand That Feeds You? No, not at all. This is the plot behind the plot. A.J. Rich is not a person, but a pseudonym, a merger of three names: A. (Amy Hempel), J. (Jill Climent), and Rich for Katherine Russell Rich. Hempel and Climent wrote The Hand That Feeds You to honor their friend Katherine Russell Rich, who passed away without the chance to put to paper her own idea for a story. The Chicago Tribune explains:

“And then she, this amazing accomplished woman, met a guy,” Ciment says. “And he knew she had Stage IV cancer and he fell in love with her. Over the course of a period of time, she discovered — and I notice it always happens at Christmastime, when you discover that your lover is married.”

And out of heartbreak, out of death, comes a thriller of heartbreak and death. I love books unafraid to peer under the bed where the monsters live, and this is where The Hand That Feeds You goes. Hempel and Climent hand you a flashlight, and urge you to push into the darkness, beckoning you into the closets and basements where their bold questions about the nature of crime and its victims await.

The Hand That Feeds You begins with a mauling. It’s gruesome, and it gave me nightmares. Victim and victimology student Morgan arrives home to what she thinks are rose petals on the floor. At second glance, she realizes she’s looking at red paw prints. Her dogs are covered in what looks like red paint. But it isn’t paint, and her fiancé’s body is in the bedroom. Morgan is shocked that her beloved dogs (big dogs, but tame ones) mauled her fiancé Bennett, and left him lying dead.

As Morgan seeks to make sense of the tragedy, as she seeks Bennett’s family to notify them of his death, things that normally should fall into place after such an incident don’t. The body remains unidentified at the morgue–the man she knew as Bennett was a fraud, the family he told her lived in Canada nonexistent. Who was this man, and how was she, a student of the ways criminals take advantage of their victims, susceptible to such a lie? How was she not immune?

This is a book that pushes boundaries at every twist and turn. Morgan, as narrator, isn’t a strong and independent femme fatale but a woman rocked to her very core by past events and current ones, a woman trying to protect herself by intellectually understanding the evils of the world, and failing miserably.

The Hand That Feeds You on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

In ‘The Bones of You,’ Debbie Howells Channels Alice Seobold’s ‘The Lovely Bones’

the-bones-of-you

The Bones of You channels a popular mystery that came before it, The Lovely Bones, in both title and narrative style. When Jo’s daughter Rosie goes missing, neighbor Kate steps in to provide comfort. When Rosie’s body is found, and news of foul play emerges, Kate finds herself becoming more enmeshed with the Anderson family during their time of grief: beautiful, trim housewife Jo; her newscaster husband, Neal; and their surviving timid daughter Delphine.

The story is told not only through Kate’s eyes but also through Rosie’s, who is now all-seeing in some heavenly afterlife. What Kate couldn’t know about the Anderson family because she sees only their perfect kitchen, breath-taking garden, and stylish clothes, Rosie reveals in an angelic mash of memories. Behind closed doors, the family is falling apart. Rosie reveals a mess of abuse and suffering that may or may not have led to Rosie’s death.

Dreadful scenes of Rosie’s home life contrast with Kate’s naivety as she becomes more involved with Jo. Kate is all concern and stability, a trainer of horses who appreciates their ability to intuit human emotions. Jo, after losing her daughter, is all blank stares and pretty blouses, ordering new furniture while she stays stoic and tries not to reveal any emotion. Her behavior, as well as that of her husband and Delphine’s, is strange. As the novel continues and the reader knows more than Kate, thanks to the passed-on Rosie’s angelic narration, the thrill becomes less “whodunnit” and more “when will sweet Kate get a clue, a bad vibe, anything…”

The Bones of You is compulsively readable, and fans of The Lovely Bones will appreciate the nod to its narrative style. I enjoy a book where the clues are discovered rather than revealed through narration, so this omniscient angel-esque narration style isn’t my favorite. In spite of that, I read it in a few days, and was always eager to get back to it and settle in with its eerie atmosphere. Get your (patriotic) snacks and settle in, once you start this one you won’t come up for air until you’ve finished.

The Bones of You on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org

Read an excerpt of The Bones of You

Samantha Hayes Brings Twists To A Small Town In ‘What You Left Behind’

what you left behindIn the opening scene of Samantha Hayes’s new mystery What You Left Behind, a couple joyrides on a stole motorcycle, with deadly consequences. This scene winds it way through the novel, as DCI Lorraine Fisher goes to visit her sister Jo in the country, and stumbles upon mysterious characters and mysterious crimes. In the fictional village of Radcote, a cluster of teen suicides still haunt the community. Jo’s son, Freddie, is clearly struggling, upset about Jo’s separation from husband, Malcom, and whatever keeps him furiously gazing at his phone day and night. But what exactly is Freddie involved in, and what does it have to do with the family who lives in the manor house, who lost their son in the outbreak of suicides last year?

Samantha Hayes proved herself a master of the red herring with the first book featuring DCI Lorraine Fisher, Until You’re Mine. I recommend it, although you don’t need to read it to pick up What You Left Behind.

One of Hayes’s best tricks seems to be to fall into stereotypical characters, and then pull out of them. There were several times, especially with Gil, an autistic (and suspect) member of the manor family who likes to take long walks alone at night, that I thought to myself,”Is she really stereotyping this character this hard? Am I really falling for this?” But (I’m not a fan of spoilers, so without giving too much away) Hayes manages, as she did with Until You’re Mine, to pull off a twist I totally didn’t see coming, as my attention was directed so many places.

If you are looking for a compulsively readable, spooky and fast-paced series to take to the beach or the pool this summer, look no further, as Samantha Hayes has got you covered.

What You Left Behind on Amazon.com/Powell’s.com/Indiebound.org