In Michelle Richmond’s ‘The Marriage Pact,’ Till Death Do Us Part Jokes Write Themselves

the marriage pact

Marriage is a once-indomitable institution in decline. Books like Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies and Kate Bolick’s Atlantic article of the same name confirm this for us. We’re getting married less, and staying married less often.

So what should we do about it? In Michelle Richmond’s thriller The Marriage Pact, power couples have decided to take the power of marriage back, by any means necessary. Meet the namesake Pact, a secret society intent on developing great marriages. Think of a chic, jetsetting, Scientology-esque group of obsessive mate-pleasers.

But just what makes a successful marriage? When Alice and Jake are invited to join the secret club after their wedding, they’re all in. Every newly-wedded couple can use some help, right? What sounds simple becomes a controlling and torturous power game, as The Pact takes things to another level. Spousal support of all kinds is demanded, and The Pact will be there to enforce the rules when they aren’t followed.

Sure, it sounds cheesy, right? And it is, a bit. The best thrillers are aware of the genre and not afraid to dive on into the deep end. Or they draw themselves on out of it and head away from the genre entirely. But I digress. I judge straight thrillers solely on how well they keep me craving the next page, drawing me forward into the story, not on how well they reinvent the wheel. The Marriage Pact had me falling deeper and deeper through a rabbit hole of exhausting demands with Alice and Jake. The novel’s exploration of society’s expectations of marriage was an interesting and thoughtful twist, like slowing down to peer at emotional wreckage while speeding ahead on a thrill ride.

While this was one thrill ride I thoroughly enjoyed, I was disappointed when it abruptly ended and I was forced to get off. The Marriage Pact‘s ending was the book’s only letdown, as it felt forced, but perhaps left an opening for a follow-up. I didn’t buy the character’s choices in the last few pages, but of course I’ll buy the sequel if there is one. I’m a lover, not a fighter. Pact, I’m here for you, ’till death do us part.

The Marriage Pact (out July 25) on’

Uncover A Wrongful Conviction in ‘The Life We Bury’ by Allen Eskens

the life we bury
College student Joe Talbert has a lot going on. His mom is a mess of mental illness and alcoholism, and he often finds himself as the primary caretaker for his autistic little brother. Despite his familial challenges, he’s finally made it into college. His English assignment is to find a stranger, interview him, and write a biography of his or her life. How difficult could this really be?

In Allen Eskens’ The Life We Bury, what starts as a simple college assignment turns out to be a full-blown investigation into a crime committed decades ago, and an exploration of a dying man’s haunting memories. Talbert, through a series of events that sounds much more believable in the book, chooses to interview a chronically ill convict released to a local retirement home. As he interviews the convicted killer, questions about the case and the man’s past arise.

I’ve been trying to pinpoint why this thriller wasn’t too memorable to me. It was solid all around. The characters were quirky, charming, and lovable. The side plot of Talbert’s budding romance with his neighbor was delightful. Allen Eskens is clearly a talented author, he can build up a tale that keeps a reader curious and entertained.

I think part of the problem, for me, was the amount of setup required to get the thrill on here. The plot required a lot of explanation at every turn, and none of it felt easy or natural to me. Why go to an old folks home? Why is the inmate there? Why this? Why that? Those who read the blog know I’m not a fan of the bells or whistles as much as I am a simple, well-crafted story, well-written. While I loved the characters, I didn’t love the way the story was built.

However, if you love charming, off-beat folks coming together to solve mysteries (think Peter Clines or Harlen Coben), then give this one a go. And this was Eskens’ debut novel, so definitely keep an eye on what is to come from him.

Scare Slowly, Then All At Once: Andrew Michael Hurley’s ‘The Loney’

the loney

IF IT HAD another name, I never knew, but the locals called it the Loney— that strange nowhere between the Wyre and the Lune where Hanny and I went every Easter time with Mummer, Farther, Mr and Mrs Belderboss and Father Wilfred, the parish priest. It was our week of penitence and prayer in which we would make our confessions, visit Saint Anne’s shrine, and look for God in the emerging springtime, that, when it came, was hardly a spring at all; nothing so vibrant and effusive. It was more the soggy afterbirth of winter.

Dull and featureless it may have looked, but the Loney was a dangerous place. A wild and useless length of English coastline. A dead mouth of a bay that filled and emptied twice a day and made Coldbarrow— a desolate spit of land a mile off the coast— into an island. The tides could come in quicker than a horse could run and every year a few people drowned. Unlucky fishermen were blown off course and ran aground. Opportunist cocklepickers, ignorant of what they were dealing with, drove their trucks onto the sands at low tide and washed up weeks later with green faces and skin like lint.

The Loney, Andrew Michael Hurley

Everyone’s favorite YA romance taught us that falling in love is like falling asleep–you can do it slowly, then all at once. But you can do other things like that too. You can be scared slowly, then all at once. You can wade with a gothic novel through a thick and brambly slow-paced novel of hints and foreboding, and then find yourself, all at once, in the midst of something unspeakable, terrifying, and absolutely evil.

Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney is that sort of book, a trap that feels almost lazily set in its own preciseness, a book that will have you wondering where its slow crawl down a gloomy beach with a desperate family is leading. The pace is nearly nonexistent, the book is drowning in its own paranoia.

I think this book is making waves (most notably Sarah Perry’s Guardian review, claiming it a gothic masterpiece) because we don’t write or read thrillers this way anymore. We so often want them quick and dirty, easily consumable. We don’t want their sentences suffocating, their paces slow, their plots unclear and totally unnavigable. And yet, here is The Loney, a painful, detailed, drudging, and really, crystalline book. And it works.

The Loney on’

A Man Survives In Noah Hawley’s ‘Before the Fall’

Before the Fall-453

First, let’s talk names. When I refer to Before the Fall here, I’m not referring to the 2004 German film or the manga series Attack on the Titan: Before the Fall. I’m not referring to the 2008 or 2015 movies of the same name, or the several less notable novels and short stories which also share the title. And don’t even get me started on things named After the Fall. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the thriller released at the end of this month by Noah Hawley, the guy who created the acclaimed TV series Fargo. Don’t let its forgettable name confuse you–this is a book to read.

Those who follow the blog know I’m not a fan of hype. Books with big hype never live up to their marketing promises, and reading them often leaves me deflated, once again angry at publishers for fearlessly over-promising me the moon in print. But Noah Hawley’s fifth novel, about a plane crash, about a man and a boy alone in an ocean at night, and the events leading up to that crash and just following it, is one of those rare reads living up to its hype.

So (spoiler alert? If you wanted to go in cold, this is a surprise in the first chapter, I think, and I’m sorry) this book is about a plane crash. It is about a man swimming with a boy on his back, plunging underneath a gigantic wave. But this isn’t no-frills thriller, a page-turner that leaves you hungry like bad Chinese food eaten too fast on a Friday night. This is a book about Jack LaLanne’s tailor-made sweatsuits, and paintings that you will never see that take your breath away, and a kidnapping. This is a book about corrupt men and innocent, beautiful women. As fast as you’ll want to chomp this down, it will leave you feeling full.

A private plane, a nine-seat OSPRY 45XR, takes off from Martha’s Vineyard, bound for New York. An extra passenger is onboard, in addition to the usual outlandishly wealthy businessmen and their families. A painter named Scott, who planned on taking the ferry into the city but was invited along at the last minute, has barely caught the flight. One minute, he is in the sky, mildly unnerved by the ridiculous luxury of private plane travel.

And then, the next moment, it seems, he’s in the sea.

We love survival stories. We gathered in theaters to watch men freeze to death on Everest, and to see a man cut off his own arm in 127 Hours. Before the Fall is more than a survival story, though. It is a story about how we live after survival. About how we consume each other, and things, for our own needs. What gets us through? And what doesn’t? Don’t forget this is a thriller, albeit a fleshy one. The question pounding through the book with false stops and starts is why the plane crashed. Told from the perspectives of those involved in the crash, and those investigating it in its aftermath, Hawley crystallizes life through laser-sharp details before zooming out for big picture stuff. A less talented author would have created just another thriller, choppy and imprecise. But Before the Fall is a full, wide-open story with big wings. Just be ready for those wings to fall off, and everything to come crashing down.

Before the Fall (out May 21st) on’

‘Luckiest Girl Alive’ Author Jessica Knoll In Phoenix Today

luckiest girl alive

A friend’s mom and I were recently talking books. We were talking Gone Girl–doesn’t everyone? She mentioned that its clever social commentary frequently gets overlooked, and so many other thrillers just don’t include this. The myth of the cool girl, and all that.

Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive picks up where Gone Girl left off, with biting commentary on the modern day woman and the myths surrounding her, wrapped up in a thriller. Although Ani seems to have the perfect job, the perfect fiancé, and the perfect life, an uncontainable past looms behind her. Even a picture perfect life can’t fix her history. But what can?

Although Luckiest Girl Alive has been out for a while, and is now out in paperback, there have been all sorts of new revelations surrounding the book. Author Knoll recently wrote an essay in which she declared that the (spoiler alert?) rape scene in her novel was inspired by her real life experience:

But as I gear up for my paperback tour, and as I brace myself for the women who ask me, in nervous, brave tones, what I meant by my dedication, What do I know?, I’ve come to a simple, powerful revelation: everyone is calling it rape now. There’s no reason to cover my head. There’s no reason I shouldn’t say what I know.

Film rights for the book have been acquired by Lionsgate and Reese Witherspoon’s tour-de-force production company Pacific Standard, at the helm. This is the company that brought you book-to-screen versions of Wild and Gone Girl, so be prepared for a blockbuster.

Jessica Knoll will be at Changing Hands in Phoenix tonight, Tuesday, April 12th, at 7pm.

Luckiest Girl Alive on’

Lose Yourself In Lisa Lutz’s ‘The Passenger’ – Review and Giveaway


When I found my husband at the bottom of the stairs, I tried to resuscitate him before I ever considered disposing of the body. I pumped his barrel chest and blew into his purple lips. It was the first time in years that our lips had touched and I didn’t recoil.

The Passenger, Lisa Lutz

Thus begins Lisa Lutz’s newest thriller, The Passenger, in which a woman tries on identities like new clothes. The novel is broken into sections based on the identity our protagonist assumes, beginning with Tanya Dubois, a woman on the run from her past and her husband’s body, left lumped at the bottom of the stairs.

Tanya Dubois, aka Amelia Keene, aka a handful of other names throughout the book, creeps like a chameleon through the story, trying on identities and glancing back into a history that is slowly revealed to the reader. She acts as a woman adrift, unmoored by circumstances and reacting to situations as they arise, ever a survivor, always a ghost in society’s gigantic machine.

When Tanya aka Amelia meets another woman like herself, a blank slate looking to wipe her past clean, they twist forever into each other’s fates. This is a book about women on the run, and women who get tired of running. This is a chase novel, as I found myself chasing down this woman’s identity just like other characters in the book. Our heroine pushes bravely on, her world collapsing behind her, each step heading further into trouble. She has a penchant for bars, ever-debating what her new identity would drink, and she seems to struggle to make right in a world gone terribly wrong.

The comparisons to other hot thrillers with shifty heroines, the Gone Girl and Girl on the Train set, are impossible not to make. Both books are name-dropped on the dust jacket of my copy. So if you liked those books, then absolutely, check this one out. But too many comparisons limit The Passenger’s own strange and shifty identity. There is something mesmerizing about watching our protagonist step through a house of cards just before its fall, again and again. We may love to read about women gone wicked and wild, but Tanya/Amelia is less that than a shell, becoming whatever her surroundings require of her.

This isn’t Lisa Lutz’s first novel, but this is the first time I had heard of her. I will definitely be checking out her previous work. If you are in my area, Lisa Lutz will be making an appearance at The Poisoned Pen on Tuesday, March 15th.

I’m lucky enough to have an extra copy of The Passenger to giveaway, see the Rafflecopter widget on the Facebook page.

The Passenger on’



Hackers Go Head To Head In Drew Chapman’s ‘The King Of Fear’

the king of fear

When we think terror attack, we think bombs and guns, loud noise and explosions. But in Drew Chapman’s The King of Fear, terror gets a makeover. Something wicked this way comes, and it comes in the form of a single nefarious young man, and he heads directly into the heart of capitalism. His aim isn’t a single tower or certain gathering of people, but our thrumming monetary system and the sense of order it provides.

Garrett Reilly is the sort of genius savant we now expect from our thrillers—a tortured soul, haunted by a heavy history and his brilliant mind. He recognizes patterns in the stock market and in his daily life, and lately he’s seeing strange wisps and echoes of something big brewing. Big money movement that doesn’t make sense is swirling in his periphery vision.

Ilya Markov is the villain to Reilly’s hero–a young chameleon of a conman, a terrorist who may be working for a European country or may be going rogue. He’s a hacker with his eye on the system itself. Markov has big plans for America, and it is up to Reilly to stop them.

The King of Fear is actually a sequel, to The Ascendant, and normally I’m hesitant to pick up sequels without reading the first in the series. But I wasn’t left too out of the loop here. Drew Chapman is not only a novelist, but also a film/TV writer, and this shows in the book’s breezy action and memorable, but likable characters. The King of Fear is a fast, easy read for days lounging by the pool or nights you are looking for an alternative to all the terrorist-fueled TV shows on the air nowadays.

The King of Fear on


BLOG TOUR: Is Fiona Barton’s ‘The Widow’ The Next ‘Gone Girl’?

The Widow

Fiona Barton’s debut novel The Widow echoes Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, and Lisa Lutz’s upcoming The Passenger. How well do we know anyone, especially those closest to us? How well can we know ourselves?

In The Widow, a kid was kidnapped. Years ago now, back in 2006, a toddler, Bella, disappeared from her yard when her mom looked away.

Now, it is 2010. Our namesake widow, Jeanie Taylor, is grieving the loss of her husband, Glen. Reporters are knocking at her door. Glen’s death matters because he was the main suspect in Bella’s kidnapping and assumed death. The courts never proved him guilty. Jeanie always stood by his side.

The story of then and now, the desperation of the kidnapping and the slow burn of the time to come after, is told through alternating perspectives: the widow, the reporter, the detective, the mother, etc.

Critics (and publicists) are hailing The Widow as the new Gone Girl. So many things have been hailed the new Gone Girl that it seems like a blanket announcement used for a new thriller with an unreliable female protagonist. So is The Widow the new Gone Girl? I would say it is, as much as The Girl on the Train was before it. It takes risks, but only in its muted sensibilities. With all of Gone Girl‘s dark exploration, The Widow edges just a bit darker, pushing towards the mind of a (potential) pedophile and the woman who may or may not love him.

An important thing to remember about Gone Girl is that Gillian Flynn’s narrator was so unreliable (spoiler alert) that some of the book was a lie. The language, the tone, the action itself. This is wonderful for a twist, but difficult to do without a dramatic plot device to rely upon. Gone Girl relied on a planted diary, and in many ways it was just a new version of S.J. Watson’s thriller Before I Go To Sleep, which relied on diaries and (the more dramatic) amnesia. This desire for a twist so big it can’t be plotted within a traditional narrative, post-Gone Girl, has caused authors to push further, and brought us the alcoholic blackouts of The Girl on the Train, a diary-in-reverse in the miraculously appearing novel of Disclaimer, and amnesia post-accident of In a Dark, Dark Wood. But The Widow reminds us that in our post-Gone Girl world, we don’t need our thrillers to come with wilder and wilder surprises each time, girls bopped on the head and blinded to the truth until the last pages. Barton drops smug, unpleasant hints of an ugliness beneath the surface throughout the novel, and it still chills the spine.

The Widow is intentionally rigid and tightly wound, like each of the personalities in the novel which have been so affected by the crime, and it doesn’t deviate from this uncomfortable structure. Where Gone Girl bent full in, giving us all the emotion, The Widow pulls back, reminding us just how much emotion lies beneath the surface, and just how much society demands us to hide.

In a world drowning in advertisements of perfect women, airbrushed and smiling, the popularity of this sort of monster-in-disguise book makes sense. We aren’t all closet psychopaths, of course, but I think we all feel a dissonance between what exists in private and what pop culture suggests we should look like, act like, and feel like.

Whether or not The Widow reaches Gone Girl-level hysteria, this is a thriller that demands attention.

The Widow on’


Kali’s 10 Best Brackish Books of 2015


Alright, here it is. A best books list. I was going to do a traditional best books list, including all the books, but I haven’t even finished A Little Life. I got to the part after all is revealed where a weak Jude must be scooped out of his chair by Willem after a wonderful dinner with friends. Jude peeks back to the hearty laughter and gives a pathetic little wave. And I was just like, “I’m going to put this aside for a bit.” I set it aside, and didn’t pick it back up.

Clearly there’s a type of book I love most. If you’re a reader of the blog, you’ve caught on to that. A guy at work exclaimed the other day, “You have a fascination with criminals!” And maybe I do. I like my books a little salty, a little lurid, enveloped in a whole lot of darkness with a few well-deserved twists. That means that most of my faves fall somewhere between literary fiction and thriller, walking a tightrope of noir and psychological horror. Some were released in other countries before this year, but it’s a blog, and I make up my own rules.

Without further ado:

  1. Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh eileenThis book has all the things I hold dear to my heart. A slightly unhinged narrator. A wacky alcoholic family member. A boy’s home for adolescent offenders. A beautiful woman with dishonorable motives. And a bunch of raw nervous energy. You can read my original review.
  2. The Truth and Other Lies by Sascha Arango the-truth-and-other-lies-9781476795553_hr The Truth and Other Lies is bitingly funny. Its cool narrator, a man taking credit for his wife’s blockbuster novels, steers the plot headlong into disaster. My original review.
  3. A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay
    head full of ghostsI see this one becoming a cult classic, if anything published by William Morrow and nominated for a Goodreads Reader’s Choice Award could ever be considered cult. The one word used to describe this horror novel is meta. This is a horror novel fully aware of horror novels, and films, and all the better for it. My review.
  4. Disclaimer by Renee Knight disclaimer I absolutely loved the premise of this one so much I had to go out and get a copy. A woman picks up a book and begins to read the story of her life. She notices the disclaimer in the front, that one that ensures the story isn’t based on true events, is crossed out. Who wrote the book? How did it get to her? My review.
  5. The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins the girl on the train Unless you were living under a rock this year, you are familiar with this one. It was a runaway hit, hailed as this year’s Hitchcock-ian Gone Girl. Rachel watches an ideal couple each morning from the commuter train. When the wife of the couple shows up missing on the news, Rachel places herself into the investigation. Read my original review.
  6. Black Chalk by Christopher J. Yates black chalk This is a bit of a cheat, as I had a copy of this last year. Random House UK released this in 2014, but it was released in the US this year by Picador with a beautiful new cover. Black Chalk brings a psychological Hunger Games to Oxford University. Six incredibly close friends agree to a game run by the mysterious ‘game soc’ club at their school. The game becomes more involved, taking over their lives, as the students begin to lose control. My review.
  7. The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi The Water Knife Let’s throw a little bit of near-future climate fiction on here, shall we? The Water Knife is brilliant because it pushes what is happening now just a bit farther, and magnifies it into something shocking. States are battling for water rights, and water knives slip through the night to bomb water plants and kill the right people, ensuring powerful cities stay wet. If you like drinking water, read this book. My review.
  8. Bone Gap by Laura Ruby bone gap And also we’ll add a tad of magical realism to the list. Bone Gap is a bright and crisp and beautiful young adult novel. I haven’t reviewed it because I’m just not sure what to make of it. As a lover of straight-shooting mysteries and thrillers, its more fantastical elements disappointed me. But does that mean I still don’t think about its lovable, well-crafted characters? Its charming little town? No, of course not. A part of me may always be in Bone Gap.
  9. Missoula by Jon Kraukauer missoula This isn’t even fiction. This is an exposé of the rape culture on America’s college campuses, with a focus on Missoula, Montana. It is shocking, and an absolute must-read. My original review.
  10. The Cartel by Don Winslow the cartel How many ways can people die in one book? Books about cartels love to explore this question. I became weary of all the descriptions of death, but at the same time understood it was part of the rough and angry territory of a sprawling epic of the Mexican drug war. Proceed at your own caution–the characters here are masterfully crafted, but also masterfully executed. My original review at the Manhattan Book Review.

Cuddle up with a cat and a comforter, cozy up with some cocoa and your Kindle. You’ve got a lot of books to get through. Happy reading!

Karin Slaughter Takes On Family And Other Gruesome Things In ‘Pretty Girls’

pretty girls

Karin Slaughter is legit. I say this having only read one of her huge Will Trent/Grant County series, Criminal, which didn’t totally blow me away. Where I did fall in love with that story was in its portrayal of women on the police force in the 1970’s, which Slaughter so intensely described it kept me up at nights, skipping the present-day, Will Trent sections of the book to get back those flashbacks of his mentor’s times on earlier, much meaner streets.

This means I was definitely a fan of Cop Town, Slaughter’s stand-alone novel focusing on women police in 1970’s Atlanta. And when Slaughter’s newest release, Pretty Girls, was announced as another stand alone, I was excited, just as Will Trent fans everywhere were dismayed.

In Pretty Girls, posh, confident Claire’s successful architect husband, Paul, is murdered in a robbery gone wrong. Immediately after his death, things stop making sense for Claire. She’s left in a stark, excessively large home she never wanted. A robbery takes place at Claire’s home during the funeral, and police and the FBI are a bit too interested in the case, a bit too attentive to Claire’s needs.

Meanwhile, Claire’s sister Lydia, estranged from the family, is revisiting old wounds as another young girl goes missing in the media. Where Claire is classy and sophisticated, Lydia is overweight and runs a pet-grooming service. As different as the sisters are, they both are haunted by the the memory of their third sister Julia, who went missing in their childhood.

The sisters’ stories alternate until they intertwine, as they come together to figure out just what the police could want from Claire, and who Paul really was.

The best part of this book, and maybe all thrillers for me, was its tense beginning. Claire, nervous and in mourning, realizes something isn’t right. But what, exactly? Everyone is acting strangely, the husband she relied on is dead, and she is left entirely on her own to discover his dark secrets. Like Stephen King’s A Good Marriage, the idea that you may not know the person you married, the person you sleep in bed next to each night, is terrifying.

There is quite a bit of gore, with some really ugly stuff presented. These scenes are brief, and play a role in explaining character development.

The story complicated itself as it progressed, and it began to lose a bit of steam for me, raising too many red flags of plausibility. I didn’t need that many twists for the book to be good. Despite feeling a bit bogged by the end, this is a finely-crafted thriller, with well-developed and realistic female characters confronting both family issues and much uglier, darker things. I know Will Trent fans are eagerly awaiting Slaughter’s next book in that series, but I’ll be eagerly awaiting her next stand-alone release.

Pretty Girls on’