Mini Book Reviews: Thriller Edition

The Walls
By Hollie Overton

The Walls, by Hollie Overton - Kristy Tucker works as a public information officer at a death row prison facility in Texas navigating between inmates, the press, and prison officials. Despite her longing desire to quit and do something less soul draining, as a single mom to a teenage boy and a dad with declining health, she needs the paycheck and security of the job. When Lance Dobson walks into her life, she finally feels like she has a partner with whom to share responsibilities and burdens. But there’s more to Lance than meets the eye, and none of it is good. Unfortunately, Kristy is the only one who he shows his sinister side to and it paralyzes her. Until, one day, her animal need for survival kicks in. Despite some holes in the storyline, like a death row inmate racing against the clock to file his final appeal, The Walls will have you racing to the last page. It’ll also have you wondering if there really is such a thing as a ‘criminal’ mind or does that pathos exist in all of us, lurking in our subconscious only to surface in those situations where we see no other way?

Published: 2017
Publisher: Redhook
Elizabeth's Rating: 3½ stars

Good Me Bad Me, by Ali Land - Annie, now known as Milly to hide her identity, is finally freed from the grasps of her murderous mother and is placed with a foster family awaiting one of England’s most publicized trials. A female serial killer of children in her own home, Milly’s mom forced her daughter to witness her crimes and keep her deadly secrets. Milly’s new home life is far from perfect. With a drugged out foster mom and a vicious foster sister, Mike, her foster dad is the only one who is really looking out for her. But are his motives solely altruistic? And is Milly the innocent she appears to be? This book ponders the genetics vs. environment argument behind criminal activity and keeps you guessing until the end who are victims and who are perpetrators. Struggling to find a hero in this story, it is still hard to put down.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Flatiron Books
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 3 stars

I Found You: A Novel
By Lisa Jewell

I Found You, by Lisa Jewell - Alice Lake, eccentric map making artist and single mother of three all from different dads, finds a man stoically sitting on the beach in front of her house in the rain. Frank, as she dubs him because he has lost all memory of himself, stays in her guesthouse and inches into her heart as they try to uncover his past. As the story unravels and the connections between Frank, Alice’s house, and her town deepen, we are faced with the dilemma that Frank is either a murderer or in grave danger because he was witness to one. Which will it be? Jewell’s character development and scenery description elevate this mystery into more than just a riveting story.

Published: 2017
Publisher: Atria Books
                                             Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

The Last Mrs. Parrish, by Liv Constantine - Amber has one goal in life, to become the wife of a New England social and financial elite. And she has her sights set on one mister in particular: Jackson Parrish. Unfortunately for her, he’s currently married to his soul mate, Daphne. But Amber will not be sidelined by something silly like true love. Her calculated moves allow her to worm herself deeper and deeper into the Parrishes’ lives until she’s exactly where she wants to be. Or is she? Despite seemingly playing Daphne like the stupid, spoiled rich girl that she is, perhaps Amber has misjudged Daphne’s perceptiveness. Also, has she overestimated Jackson’s suitability as the perfect mate? ‘Be careful what you wish for’ and ‘all appearances are not what they seem’ are clichés that will run through your mind as you churn to the finish of this book.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Harper
                                            Elizabeth's Rating: 4 stars

Mini Book Reviews: Spring Break Edition

Spring break is upon us. Schedules are undone, and we're finding different pockets of time to sneak in some reading. Elizabeth's provided us with some great and fun suggestions to get us through the week.

The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware – Lo Blacklock finally gets the break she’s been waiting for in her stagnant career as a low-level journalist. Because of her boss’ unavailability, she’s asked to be her magazine’s representative on the maiden voyage of a five-star luxury cruise boat. Closer in size to a yacht than a cruise ship, this trip brings a whole new meaning to the idea of intimate quarters. Just as she did with the house in A Dark, Dark Wood, Ruth Ware makes the location of the mystery, in this case the boat, a character in and of itself. You’re never really sure what is happening on board. Has there been foul play at sea, is the entire story a figment of Lo’s imagination, or does the truth fall somewhere in the middle? You’ll be turning pages quickly to find out.

 Published: 2016
                                              Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                              Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard – Suffering the harshest of outcomes from a one-time drinking and driving incident, Helen finds herself desperately alone. Fortunately, or so she initially thinks, Ava and Swift Havilland come to her rescue. Believing them to be her saviors, she welcomes their generosity and credits them with the slow turnaround of her circumstances from bleak to hopeful. But as her life becomes more intimately intertwined with theirs, she starts to question their motives and their true characters. Are they trying to help her get back on her feet or are they using her to advance their own interests? When tragedy strikes, loyalties are laid out in unexpected ways.  

Published:  2016
Publisher:  William Morrow Paperbacks
Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 ½ stars

All the Missing Girls, by Megan Miranda – Nic ran away from her small home town Cooley Ridge, NC, after the disappearance of her best friend. A decade later, she returns on the heels of the disappearance of yet another girl with whom she’s connected. Having been the only one of her friends or family to leave town, she is walking back in time to her brother, her ailing dad, and her ex-boyfriend. The telling of the story begins after Nic has been back in town for two weeks. The author then backtracks through Nic’s previous fourteen days, one by one, to tell the entire story weaving in facts about Nic’s high school years and the first girl’s disappearance. While the literary device is novel, it’s confusing. At times, the reader has to sit back and recalculate where exactly the story is which breaks up otherwise effective tension. Disjointed story-telling, good mystery.

                                            Published:  2017
                                            Publisher:  Simon & Schuster
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 3 stars

The River at Night
By Erica Ferencik

The River at Night, by Erica Ferencik – This is Deliverance 2.0, 21st century style, with no rape (thankfully). Instead of four men on a camping trip in Georgia, this is four women on a white-water rafting trip in Maine. Instead of dueling banjos between strangers, the common denominator is sign language. A rollicking tale, the story keeps you riveted even though you don’t understand why Winifred, Sandra, and Rachel decided to go on this sketchy trip with their bossy, self-centered friend, Pia, in the first place. The trip should have never gotten off the ground but once you suspend reality to accept that it did, you won’t be able to put the book down until you know what happens. Ferencik also uses some beautiful language that almost seems out of place in this type of read. Good prose + good story telling = great ride. Pun intended.

                                            Published: 2017
                                            Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press
                                            Elizabeth’s Rating: 4 stars

Mini Book Review: "Behind Closed Doors", by B.A. Paris

You realize early on there is something very wrong with Jack and Grace’s marriage. As the tale unfolds, the wrongness explodes.  

There are holes the size of doorways in the story but that didn’t stop me from finishing the book in under two days.

Chilling, maddening and majorly anxiety producing, Behind Closed Doors will have you turning pages as fast as you can until you reach the last page and satisfyingly slam it shut.

It’ll also be a good reminder to double down on your research before dating strangers.

Published: 2016
Publisher: St. Martins Press

Elizabeth's rating: 3 stars 

A Thrilling Character Study in "Before the Fall", by Noah Hawley - Book Review

Now THIS was the thriller that I searched for all summer and finally found in the fall.

Noah Hawley’s Before the Fall runs the gamut. He masterfully writes a solid mystery with in-depth character development and a fine-tuned examination into human weakness and capacity for survival. 

No spoiler alert: The plot all revolves around the crash of a private jet into the Atlantic Ocean, which happens in the first few pages. Shockingly, two survivors surface in the immediate aftermath. Their story alone might have been the sole focus of the book but, fifty pages in, that part of the story is mostly forgotten which just demonstrates the strength of the remainder of the book.  

Before the Fall
By Noah Hawley

Hawley uses the flashback technique with precision. He develops the character of each passenger on the plane through specifically designated chapters giving glimpses into their lives ‘before the fall’.

He also offers keen insight into the minds and lives of the elite wealthy. Not the kind of people who have two Mercedes and a beach house. The kind that own islands and skyscrapers. He exposes how that type of wealth can be shackling, albeit with gold, and can lead to incredibly flawed decision making.

Mental illness and obsession also play a role in the story. Specifically, how the harmful actions of someone with an unsound mind seem so insane to the outside world, yet completely justifiable in the mind of the one with the illness.

The thread tying everything together is finding the answer to one question: why did that plane fall out of the sky? Mechanical malfunction? Pilot error? Espionage? Terrorism? Revenge? Delving into the psyches of all the main players makes each of these a possibility but, obviously, in the end, there is only one answer. And it is shocking both in its unexpectedness and its simplicity.

This was my first read of Hawley’s but it will definitely not be my last.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Elizabeth's rating: 4 ½ stars

Falling Flat with "The Loney", by Andrew Michael Hurley - Book Review

About The Loney, Stephen King wrote, “It’s not just good, it’s great. An amazing piece of fiction.”

The judges who awarded it the Costa First Novel Award wrote, “We all agreed this is as close to the perfect first novel you can get.”

I seriously wonder how it is possible we all read the same book.

It is touted as a thriller. I was never thrilled. It is supposed to be haunting and suspenseful. I found it to be neither. One reviewer suggested any reader would suffer sleepless nights.

Any sleeplessness this book caused in me related to my inability to figure out how it was so highly regarded.

The Loney
By Andrew Michael Hurley

The story is set in a gloomy coastal hamlet somewhere in the British Isles. The main character, his family, and a priest, return there to carry out an annual ritual aimed at curing his brother of his muteness.

While on their pilgrimage this time, the boys find a gun. They keep it. Some creepy locals appear. They are strange and do strange things. The boys meet an odd couple with a very pregnant teenage daughter. Some arguably supernatural – or maybe just unnatural - things occur. I couldn’t say for sure.

Perhaps the value of this book is in a subtlety too refined for my logical mind. But I read a lot of books and I feel that if I missed the point, so will many others.

Either way, The Loney’s purported genius was lost on me. My two thoughts when I finished the book were, first, what did I just read? Second, why did I just read it?

Published: 2016
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Elizabeth's rating: 1 star

A Disappointing Follow Up in "The Heavens May Fall", by Allen Eskens - Book Review

Book reviews are of course, subjective. They are relative too. Relative to what is on the recent reading list, genres, and to other work by the same author. The Heavens May Fall is fine, with a decent plot, suspense, and an unexpected twist. So this crime drama from Allen Eskens is fine. However, after a stretch of reading that included literary heavyweights Anthony Marra, Colum McCann, and Amor Towles…. Well, it’s all relative, right?

Perhaps it’s also the comparison to Eskens’ last book, The Guise of Another, reviewed here last year. Quite good, and memorable as a rather fun crime drama - one with a likable, if not completely innocent, protagonist. But his latest release The Heavens May Fall basically does fall, short of my expectations.  The general plot is hackneyed, but strong, and Eskens’ own legal experience successfully helps develop the storyline. But I couldn’t connect with the character I felt I was supposed to connect with most. And the best I can say about the writing, is that it was concise. 

The Heavens May Fall
By Allen Eskens

Our two leading characters are Max Rupert, a homicide detective haunted by his wife’s unsolved death years prior, and Boady Sanden, a scarred defense attorney that has come out of retirement to represent his former law partner and friend who’s been accused of murder. There are several threads of old grudges, long time alliances, and previous wrongs that intersect to make the story interesting. And naturally, there is the accused, Ben Pruitt, the high powered attorney and father accused of murdering his wife. Then there are supporting characters that showed promise to be the troublemakers we love to hate - the deceased’s sister, the state’s prosecuting attorney - but neither were developed enough for me to care. There was a big wind up with no pitch.

And Max Rupert - poor Max. I wanted to root for him, to fall for him, to respect him.  Well, he achieved the latter at least, and perhaps his character is closer to reality than I gave him credit for, but I’m not reading this for reality. I want - I expect - a hero. I didn’t get one. The Heavens May Fall was a needed break from some of the intellectually substantial and emotional stories I’ve been reading of late, but I’m ready to move on to the next heady creation. 

Published: 2016
Publisher: Seventh Street Books

Vickie’s rating: 2.5 stars 

Murder, Corruption, and Strained Race Relations in “Darktown”, by Thomas Mullen – Book Review

Books such as Darktown make me squirmy and uncomfortable because they delve into the true nature of racism in our country’s history. Set in 1948 Atlanta, author Thomas Mullen’s story centers around Mayor Hartsfield’s appointment of the first eight black police officers in exchange for a vote his way in the upcoming elections from the influential blacks in the community. Despite the motivation, sounds like a break-through for equalizing blacks and whites, right? Not even close. The black officers did not have patrol cars, could not arrest whites, and were relegated to the basement of the YMCA as their headquarters since they weren’t allowed in the regular “white” police station.

On top of the blatant racism from the white cops and citizens, black citizens were almost equally as unsupportive to the new officers. While accustomed to harassment and abuse from white cops, the black community saw the new officers as an additional intrusion into their way of life. In a poignant conversation between one new officer and a black woman whom he was questioning about a fight, she became increasingly agitated by his repeatedly referring to her as ma’am. She finally lost her cool and yelled, “You see a ma’am here? I look like a white lady to you?”

Darktown: A Novel
By Thomas Mullen

The novel tracks a few of the fictionalized black officers as well as a couple of the white officers. As the black officers attempt to solve the murder of a young black woman whose decomposing body was found in a pile of garbage, they face substantial push back from their white superiors. But not everyone is opposed to the integration of the police department, and the black officers find some quiet support from people they wouldn’t have expected.

This is a tough book to read and the bad guys don’t get as much of a comeuppance as you’d like. But it is important story. The timing of its release seems ominously appropriate in light of the ‘if you are not like us, you are not welcome’ rhetoric of one of our current presidential nominee’s platforms. In the novel, Mullen references a billboard on a Georgia highway opposing the United Nations. It read, “Keep America safe from foreigners!” Language on a billboard almost seventy years ago that could just as easily be found on one today.

The plot is good; the historical significance and relevance is better. The complexity and ugliness of the relationship between blacks and whites, particularly in the South, continues to remain something that cannot be unpacked in neat little boxes. Mullen enlightens the reader on why the same street changes names when it leaves the white section and enters the black part; those white aristocrats could not stomach having the same return address as their negro counterparts.

Darktown is gritty, real and, despite its historical roots, is hauntingly relatable in today’s times.

Published: 2016
Publisher: Atria Books/Simon & Schuster

Elizabeth’s rating:  4 stars

Who Are the Good Guys in “The Director”, by David Ignatius - Book Review

Taking a page from Sara’s post asking authors of children’s books to stop underestimating their audience…Dear writers of political suspense novels: please stop slighting women. These novels have a wider audience than the dudes they’re targeted to. Spies, politics, and suspense are subjects a lot of women love as well. And with a generation of pretty sharp young women entering the work force and reading adult fiction, you may be pushing this audience away, as well as portraying women in a subservient light with men.

The Director: A Novel
By David Ignatius

How does this relate to The Director?  We’ll get to that. In the meantime, I’ll start with how much I did enjoy this cyber-espionage thriller. I tend to gravitate to rather heavy subjects and need to remind myself to pick up some intellectual candy every once in a while. This fit the bill perfectly. David Ignatius is a well-respected, experienced journalist with the Washington Post. He’s written several political thrillers; one made into the film, Body of Lies. He’s a skilled writer and digs deep into his subjects.

The Director takes on the thorny and very prevalent subject of cybersecurity and highly proficient hackers. The story begins with a new CIA Director, Graham Weber. Weber is an anomaly in the intelligence community - an outsider from the business world and outspoken about government abiding by its laws. His idealist philosophy immediately comes into conflict with safeguarding the nation his very first day on the job. Weber struggles with maintaining his own beliefs and morals, how far to bend them for the good of the country, and staying alive. But he has a mole within the CIA, and he has to catch him red-handed. Who does he trust in the den of spies, hackers, and politicians? As the story unfolds, we’re taken to secret hideouts, shell companies, embassies, safe houses, and the White House. 

All of this equates to a well-constructed plot and a very fun read. Here’s where my issue is, which is not exclusive to Ignatius (see my post on Leaving Berlin). The leading female character, Dr. Ariel Weiss, is beautiful, sexy, and wicked smart. She’s a cyber expert with the CIA and knows how to work the system. She essentially has to play double agent, spying within her own agency, while balancing the politics and secrets amongst the hackers, the CIA Director, and Director of National Intelligence. But for all her education and training as a secret agent, she’s amazingly vulnerable. And quite frankly, some of the scenes including Weiss are wholly ridiculous. Perhaps, geared to a male audience, Ignatius believes this is what they want to read. Or perhaps he’s simply playing into the male fantasy of women who are smart and sexy, yet still cannot fully succeed without a man’s helping hand. Well, maybe it’s still true.  

Despite this annoyance, I do recommend The Director. It’s incredibly interesting to read about international cyber warfare, along with our own country’s political cover. Ignatius bases his subjects on a certain amount of fact. Which leaves the reader to wonder how much of it is reality. Regardless, engage your suspension of disbelieve, and give it a shot.

Published: 2014
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

"In a Dark, Dark Wood", by Ruth Ware - Book Review

This is a modern day whodunit that reads much like an Agatha Christie mystery except with current technologies like cell reception and texting capability. Five women and one man gather for a ‘hen’ party, the British equivalent of an American bachelorette party, to celebrate the nuptials of Clare. Surprised by the invite since she hasn’t spoken to Clare (her ex-best friend) in years, curiosity gets the best of main character Lenora (also known as Lee, Leo or Nora), who decides to tag along to the fete with Nina (her current best friend). At final count, there is Nora, Clare, Nina, Melanie (who experiences an acute case of separation anxiety from her new born), Flo (the overly eager new best friend of Clare) and Tom (the gratuitous gay male friend).

In a Dark, Dark Wood
By Ruth Ware

The setting is the perfect thriller locale: a house deep in a ‘dark, dark wood’ belonging to Flo’s aunt who is elsewhere. The house is big and austere and almost becomes a character in the story. With huge windows facing out, the occupants can only see a short distance into the woods but seem utterly exposed to anything or anyone outside that glass. The entire time the group is in the house, as a reader, you feel on edge about exactly what IS out there.  

The story is peppered with the right amount of red herrings, plot twists, and eerie occurrences. Author, Ruth Ware adeptly works her mystery writer magic that keeps you repeatedly changing your mind about which characters are villains and which are just unlucky bystanders roped into something wicked.

No thriller would be complete without a death, and this book has one. Interestingly though, the actual death is anti-climactic compared to the journey to it and the aftermath. Ware creates tension in the story from start to finish.

While I did figure out the final plot twist just a bit before it was revealed, that discovery took nothing away from the build up of the mystery. “In a Dark, Dark Wood” will have you double-checking that your doors are locked if you’re reading it at night. It is a solid mystery with the right amount of chill.

Published: 2015
Publisher: Gallery/Scout Press

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

Surprising Subplots That Keep the Pages Turning in "The Guise of Another", by Allen Eskens - Book Review

Allen Eskens has written a really good crime novel. The Guise of Another proves the writer’s talent, only his second published  work. Eskens effectively weaves together plot with subplots, and I completely bought in.

The Guise of Another protagonist is Minnesota police detective, Alexander Rupert. He’s a decorated officer with much success as an undercover operative. We find Alexander in a pretty rough patch. He’s been subpoenaed by a grand jury under suspicion of corruption, and because of this, he’s been transferred to the Fraud Department. His marriage seems to be falling apart, and he’s garnered the attention of an international killer. Things can crumble more quickly than you can put them together, apparently. 

While bored in the Fraud Unit, an ambulance chaser reports a potential scam. As the intake officer, Alexander gets stuck with the case. But it turns out to be much more than fraud. Alexander must discover the real identity of recently deceased James Putnam, and now chases clue upon mysterious clue in a case that winds through Minnesota and New York to find answers. 

The Guise of Another
By Allen Eskens

The backdrop to the immediate case are the accusations of corruption Alexander is facing.  His partner is under investigation and ready to spill the beans. Was Alexander, so squeaky clean, guilty? His brother, Max, also a decorated cop, is doing everything possible to protect and back his brother. And his wife, Desi, has been sleeping in a separate bedroom as he suspects her of having an affair. There is Ianna, James Putnam’s girlfriend. She’s beautiful and not entirely grieving over her boyfriend’s death. And Drago Basta, a professional killer from the Balkans who is in search of James Putnam’s well hidden secret, removing anything that gets in his way.

There are other characters that are carefully included and add to the drama, each playing an important part. Quite frankly, Drago’s role disturbed me - his methods of getting what he wants are shockingly cold. Throughout though, we are rewarded with surprising outcomes. And we sometime question who we’re rooting for. 

The Guise of Another is certainly a page turner - gripping through to the end. 

Published: 2015
Publisher: Seventh Street Books

Vickie's rating: 4 stars