Tag Archives for " thriller "
Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Gone Girl and its many less successful imitators have crowded bookstore shelves in recent years, so my natural tendency is to yawn when I come across another novel that marketers or critics compare to it. However, Janelle Brown‘s new thriller, Watch Me Disappear, merits the comparison. A forty-something Berkeley housewife mysteriously disappears, and what we think about her steadily erodes as the story unfolds. In the end, we’re left shaking our heads, a little dizzy from all the surprises we’ve encountered as the tale reached its resolution.
Sybilla “Billie” Flanagan lives with her husband Jonathan and fifteen-year-old daughter Olive in Berkeley’s Elmwood District, in an old brown-shingle home just off College Avenue. They’re a seemingly typical upper-middle-class Bay Area family. Jonathan is a senior editor at a magazine that covers the tech industry. Olive is a junior at a private, all-girls preparatory school in Oakland. And Billie, though an artist in her younger years, has devoted herself to homemaking.
Now, however, Billie has been missing for nearly a year and is presumed dead. In the years immediately before her disappearance, she had left home from time to time for long weekends to hike the Pacific Coast Trail. But she hasn’t returned from her last backpacking trip in Desolation Wilderness. She has simply disappeared, and a protracted search has failed to turn up any clue as to what happened to her. In his grief, and his concern for Olive, Jonathan has left his job at the magazine to write a memoir about his life with Billie. He’s now in financial straits, struggling to pay the mortgage and dodging calls from Olive’s school about her tuition bill—and he can’t access the money from Billie’s $250,000 life insurance policy because there’s no death certificate. Billie is only presumed dead.
Then things get worse.
Gradually, Jonathan begins to learn unsettling facts about the life Billie led after running away from home at age sixteen. To make matters worse, Olive begins having conversations with her dead mother. She insists that Billie is alive and wants to be found. As Jonathan and Olive separately pursue investigations into their disappearing wife and mother, Billie’s past life comes back to haunt them.
Watch Me Disappear is suspenseful to a fault. Though a little slow on the uptake, the novel speeds up as the complications multiply—and most readers will be surprised by the ending.
Check out my review of Gone Girl here: A bestselling New York Times thriller that’s worth all the fuss. You may also be interested in reading my reviews of 15 great suspenseful detective novels (plus 23 others).
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
The Good Daughter, Karin Slaughter‘s new thriller, her nineteenth novel, is set in rural Georgia, like most of the Grant County and Will Trent novels which established her reputation. She was born there and now lives in Atlanta—and it shows. Slaughter’s characters are clearly native to the area. They might live in one or another neighboring state, but nowhere else.
Samantha and Charlotte Quinn are now in their early forties. Known as Sam and Charlie to family and friends, they’re the daughters of Russell (Rusty) Quinn, a criminal defense lawyer who has gained the enmity of nearly everyone who lives in the region. He has defended murderers and rapists, often successfully, and frequently receives death threats as a consequence. (“There was not one low-life alleged criminal in Pikeville, Georgia, that Rusty Quinn would not represent.”) Both Sam and Charlie are also lawyers. Sam is a hugely successful patent attorney in New York; Charlie defends children.
Twenty-eight years ago, their mother, Harriet (“Gamma”) Quinn, was murdered in the kitchen of their home by two young local men as her daughters looked on. Fifteen-year-old Sam was shot in the head and buried alive. Twelve-year-old Charlie escaped by running through the woods adjoining their farm. The action in The Good Daughter alternates between the murder scene and the present day and shifts perspective from one daughter to the other as well as other characters. Their somewhat different recollections dramatically illustrate the unreliability of memory.
The story is anchored in the present because Charlie accidentally witnessed a school shooting. A teenage woman shot the principal of the middle school she’d attended and a little girl who was visiting her mother, one of the teachers. Separated from her husband, she had visited one of the other teachers to swap cellphones which had gotten exchanged when they spent the night together. As the story unfolds, the repercussions of the school shooting gradually coincide with the events on the day of Gamma Quinn’s murder. Slaughter masterfully weaves the two plots together, building suspense to a crescendo in the closing pages of the novel. Her novels have sold thirty-five million copies and have been international bestsellers—and it’s no wonder. Karin Slaughter is without doubt one of today’s most talented and accomplished thriller authors. I rush to buy every new thriller she writes.
The three women characters central to the plot in this new thriller are all brilliant. The mother, “Harriet Quinn wasn’t called Gamma out of a precocious child’s inability to pronounce the word ‘Mama,’ but because she held two doctorates, one in physics and one in something equally brainy that Samantha could never remember but, if she had to guess, had something to do with gamma rays.” Sam has inherited her mother’s smarts: at forty-four, she’s about to become a named partner at one of the world’s leading firms of patent attorneys. Charlie, who is much closer to her father, is only a little less intelligent.
For reviews of other books in this genre, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series. For a reviews of two of the author’s earlier novels, see Karin Slaughter’s tale of neo-Nazis and meth in rural Georgia and Violence abounds in Karin Slaughter’s Grant County series.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
Let’s start with a confession. I’ve been a fan of Paolo Bacigalupi’s science fiction ever since reading The Windup Girl, which I regard as one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read. The future scenario the author portrays is compelling and strikingly imaginative, and I’ve found much the same evidence of creativity in his other science fiction novels. So I turned to another of Bacigalupi’s books, The Doubt Factory, expecting more of the same. It’s not. This one, set in the United States today, is a contemporary young adult thriller, pure and simple. Combining the author’s clever plotting and fluid prose with deft development of characters who are unique and believable, The Doubt Factory is an accomplished example of his craft. I liked it a lot even though it isn’t science fiction!
Alix Banks is a 17-year-old senior at an exclusive Connecticut prep school, daughter of the founder and chief executive of a public relations firm, Banks Strategy Partners. She lives with her parents and hyperactive younger brother, Jonah, in a luxurious suburban home near other wealthy executives and professionals. Alix is a top student and track star at Seitz Academy, but she has to work to get the top grades she and her parents expect. By contrast, her friend Cynthia effortlessly earns all As. Cynthia spends evenings and weekends “partying,” and routinely invites Alix to duck her parents and come along.
Meanwhile, a young man named Moses Cruz is somehow monitoring Alix’s every move at home and at school through surveillance devices that are obviously well hidden. Then Moses shows up in the quad at Seitz Academy in the midst of a massive prank that draws all eyes to him. Someone, somehow, has caused an enormous red tag (“2.0”) to show up on the side of the chemistry lab and released a prodigious number of white rats inside. As the rats scurry away over the quad, the headmaster attempts without success to detain Moses. A tall black man dressed in fatigues, he’s obviously out of place at Seitz, where students wear uniforms. Alix is fascinated and runs after him as he makes his escape from campus security and the police who’ve been called to the scene.
Moses calls his team 2.0. Like him, the other three are all brilliant teenage renegades: a Goth coder, a young gay man, and a 12- or 13-year old mechanical genius. They’re obviously up to something, but we won’t learn what until much later in the story. Whatever it is, it has something to do with the “Doubt Factory” of the title, but that name doesn’t show up until nearly halfway through the novel.
The Doubt Factory is an action-packed young adult thriller and the story of an unlikely romance as well. It’s all based on a monumental secret and the lies that are told to protect it.
FYI, my review of The Windup Girl is here: One of the best science fiction novels I’ve ever read. Another novel set in the same imagined world is here: Another exceptionally good sci-fi novel from an emerging master. For my reviews of dozens of other thrillers, go to 48 excellent mystery and thriller series.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
If you’ve ever been to the desert in central Australia, you’ll find it easier to envision the setting in Jane Harper‘s thriller, The Dry: the featureless landscape, the stifling heat, the desolation, the sheer loneliness that the landscape inflicts on you. The novel is set somewhere south of the desert, in drought-ridden farming and sheep-herding country, but it still conjured up memories of my brief visit to the Alice Springs area more than a decade ago. It’s difficult to understand how or why anyone would choose to live in such a place. It’s somewhat easier to picture a multiple murder in such a forbidding environment.
Aaron Falk has returned to Kiewarra twenty years after he and his father had fled the town, hounded by accusations that one or the other of them had murdered Aaron’s teenage friend, Ellie Deacon. He’d been living ever since in Melbourne, far to the south, lately working as a federal investigator specializing in financial fraud. He’d returned reluctantly to attend the funeral of his boyhood best friend, Luke Hadler, his wife, and five-year-old son. They’d all been brutally shotgunned to death in a gruesome multiple murder, and Luke himself was suspected both by the townspeople and the police who’d been called in to investigate. But Luke’s parents are certain their son didn’t kill his family and himself. They’ve pressed Aaron to find out what happened. Against his better judgment, Luke has consented to stay for a week to look into the case.
Aaron quickly finds he isn’t welcome back in Kiewarra. He’s still suspected of murdering Ellie Deacon two decades earlier. Unfortunately, Luke had no alibi for the period when Ellie was killed. He’d only avoided arrest because Luke had persuaded him to tell the police that the two of them were together at the time. It hadn’t then occurred to Aaron to suspect that Luke was only gaining an alibi for himself, but now he wonders because all evidence points to murder-suicide in the deaths of the Hadler family.
Are the two mysteries connected in some way? We suspect as much, but any explanation will clearly be a long time coming in this award-winning novel. With few allies other than Luke’s aging parents, Aaron struggles against fierce resistance from the townspeople and his own suspicions as the investigation unfolds. Jane Harper tells the tale through flashbacks to Aaron’s teenage years and narrative about the increasingly complex case that only slowly becomes clear as Aaron pursues the elusive truth.
@@@ (3 out of 5)
The Switch is Joseph Finder‘s 16th thriller. Like all the others I can recall—I’ve read many of them—the novel pits an intelligent and capable upper-middle-class man against the powerful forces of government or a large corporation. In The Switch, an entrepreneur named Michael Tanner, founder and CEO of a small coffee wholesaler in Boston, finds himself facing off with the National Security Agency. Tanner is a reasonably believable character, as are the U.S. Senator and her Chief of Staff who are central figures in the story, but I find it difficult to fathom some of the decisions these characters make. They just don’t seem to fit. And the NSA comes across as a caricature, not credible either.
The novel opens at LAX, where Tanner picks up the wrong MacBook at the tail end of the security line—and the U.S. Senator whose computer it is finds herself in possession of Tanner’s. Unfortunately for all concerned, Senator Robbins’ MacBook contains a folder full of higher-than-top-secret files from the NSA. If they’re discovered, her plans to run for President will be dashed. In fact, her career in politics will certainly end, and she may even be prosecuted and sent to prison. To make matters much worse, these are not just any top-secret files: they describe a super secret program that will cause great damage to the NSA as well if they’re made public. Robbins prevails on her Chief of Staff, Will Abbott, to track down the computer and retrieve it, which requires him to turn in succession to a hacker and a hitman. Clearly, Tanner’s life will never be the same—assuming he lives.
The two men are essentially mirror opposites. Tanner is both physically fit and an extrovert, admired and respected by all, though he is separated from his wife because he works too much. Abbott is an overweight introvert who is socially awkward; however, he is married and the father of an infant. The face-off between the two is thus predictable.
Joseph Finder is capable of much better work.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
If you read Scandinavian noir but have had your fill of deranged serial killers, pick up a copy of The Lost Boy by Camilla Läckberg. Like the preceding novels in her bestselling Fjällbacka series, The Lost Boy shines with in-depth characterization and complex plotting that offers surprises to the very end. If you’re insightful about psychology, you might pick up well in advance on a couple of the plot’s major twists and turns—but it’s very unlikely you’ll catch them all. Camilla Läckberg is good!
In a devastating car crash, Ericka Falck’s infant nephew died and she was forced to undergo a Caesarian to give birth to premature twin boys. To compound the terror, Ericka’s husband, Detective Patrik Hedström, immediately collapsed from what appeared to be a heart attack. But months have passed, and finally all’s well in the Falck/Hedström home. The twins are thriving, their two-year-old sister dotes on them, and both Ericka and Patrik are fully recovered: Patrik had collapsed from stress, not a heart attack. But Ericka’s younger sister, Anna, was in the car and suffered an abortion in the crash. Now she is despondent and unresponsive to her children, her husband, and Ericka.
Against this backdrop, six other stories begin unspooling. A former classmate of Ericka’s has hidden in her cottage on a nearby island with her five-year-old son; her husband has been murdered, and they hope to evade the same fate. In flashbacks to the 1870s, a young woman living on the same island has been virtually enslaved by her cruel husband. A brother-and-sister team of con artists, having swindled a fortune from the town of Fjällbacka, is preparing to flee. The town’s treasurer has been murdered, too. A battered wife and her two children are holed up in Copenhagen, having fled Sweden. And Patrik’s incompetent boss, the chief of police, is getting on the nerves of the two younger lesbian women who live with him and his girlfriend. (One of them is her daughter.) Yes, a whole lot happens in a Camilla Läckberg novel!
If there is any overarching theme to The Lost Boy, it’s domestic violence. The investigation Patrik and his colleagues undertake into the murder of the town’s treasurer gives them (and the reader) a window on the issue and how it’s dealt with in Sweden.
Camilla Läckberg was born in Fjällbacka, Sweden, the setting for all her novels about Patrik Hedström and Ericka Falck. She has written ten novels to date in the Fjällbacka series. As best I can tell, all have been translated into English. The most recent, The Witch (2017), isn’t available in the United States at this writing. Of the other nine, six have appeared in Kindle editions. I’ve now read and reviewed all six.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Welcome to dystopia. In Little Brother, the Department of Homeland Security runs amok in San Francisco after terrorist bombings take out the Bay Bridge and the cross-bay BART tunnel with the loss of more than 4,000 lives. The city is flooded with heavily armored agents who seize anyone who looks suspicious to them. This seems to mean mostly teenagers and people of color. 15-year-old Marcus Yallow, a talented programmer and gamer, is out on a walk with his three best friends when they are all roughly apprehended by DHS agents, trussed up and tossed into the back of a huge truck, and moved to a secret jail ten minutes away from the city. There, Marcus is subjected to abusive questioning that verges on torture before he is released, days later, shaken and furious.
This, we soon learn, was all a big mistake. DHS has taken on the wrong 15-year-old.
Using his advanced programming skills and intimate knowledge of online security and encryption, Marcus sets out to organize a teenage rebellion to take back the city. Drawing his friends into his net, along with their friends and their friends’ friends, Marcus soon becomes the coordinator of hundreds of teenagers. This is a force that proves formidable even against the massed might of the Department of Homeland Security—and the resources of the White House, which unsurprisingly has instigated the DHS coup. With civil liberties suspended and the government’s goons acting more and more brutally as resistance mounts, the rebellion predictably spreads to the more thoughtful adults in the city. We can all guess where things are going—but we’ll still be surprised by the ending.
Cory Doctorow is widely viewed as one of the leading lights of the new generation of science fiction writers. As of mid-2017, he has written ten novels and at least seven works of nonfiction. He’s also a prolific blogger on copyright law, digital rights management, file-sharing, and post-scarcity economics. Little Brother was Doctorow’s fourth novel.
In his review for the New York Times Sunday Book Review, Austin Grossman treated Little Brother as a young adult novel—a natural instinct given the teenage protagonist and the peripheral roles of adults. Like so many contemporary YA novels, however, Little Brother can be rewarding for readers of any age. Grossman wrote, “An entertaining thriller and a thoughtful polemic on Internet-era civil rights, “Little Brother” is also a practical handbook of digital self-defense. Marcus’s guided tour through RFID cloners, cryptography and Bayesian math is one of the book’s principal delights. . . . This is territory the author knows well . . . His grasp of the implications of present-day information technology is authoritative. . .”
Seven and a half years after I launched this blog, I’ve reached a milestone: this is my 1000th post. Nearly 900 of those posts are book reviews. I’m listing here the 10 most popular over the past three years. Four of the 10 books reviewed are mysteries and thrillers, two are trade novels, and four are works of nonfiction.
In addition to individual book reviews, I’ve posted more than 100 commentaries. A large proportion of those are listings of good books in individual categories, such as books about espionage. At the bottom of this post I’ve included the six most-read of these listings.
The veteran LAPD detective and his young Latina partner take on the 10-year-old murder of a mariachi musician—and find it fraught with politics and other complications.
Commissario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police connects three seemingly unconnected crimes despite interference from his feckless boss.
A young Indian man, risen from poverty in Mumbai to become dean of the Indian opium traders, plays a central role in dealings with the increasingly assertive Chinese government in the late 1830s.
Leaving behind Lucas Davenport and Virgil Flowers, Sandford’s new protagonist is a Special Forces veteran and political troubleshooter in Washington, DC, who grapples with a paramilitary force set up by a rogue governor.
During Stalin’s terror in the 1930s, a Moscow detective tackles two murder cases and finds himself in conflict with the secret police and the notorious criminal gang, the Thieves.
In a story based on fact, a young woman in New Jersey during World War I takes on a wealthy man and the thugs who surround him after he refuses to pay for damages to her car.
A lone wolf P.I. is offered a fortune to find a corrupt former Illinois governor who disappeared from the courtroom after sentencing to prison two years earlier.
Bestselling author Michael Lewis relates the story of the two brilliant Israeli psychologists who turned economic theory on its head by revealing the extent to which humans are irrational.
During the 20th Century, painfully slow discoveries in psychology and neurology led to today’s modern understanding of the autism spectrum against the resistance of the psychiatric profession.
In a letter to his teenage son, an African-American public intellectual explores America’s original sin of racism, grounded in the lie that some of us are “white” and others “black.”
The 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patricia Hearst triggered the firebombing of a radical safe house in Los Angeles, a years-long FBI investigation, and Hearst’s ultimate pardon for collusion two decades later.
@@@@@ (5 out of 5)
In an interview on May 23, 2017, Scott Turow explained how he came to write a novel about a case at the International Criminal Court involving the massacre of 400 Roma (“Gypsies”). “‘In 2000, I was at a reception in The Hague and found myself in a circle of lawyers who said you have to write about this—it’s an amazing case,’ he recalls. ‘Usually when people say they have an amazing case it’s about their divorce, but this actually did sound fascinating.’”
The story the lawyers told triggered his memory of a brief exposure to Roma culture 40 years earlier, when Turow had observed a large group of Roma stealing ashtrays from a hospital. The incident puzzled him. He couldn’t understand why they would antagonize people they might have to deal with in the future. “‘What I later learned when researching for this book is that there’s no tense but the present in the Roma language and no written or oral tradition for passing down information. Their history goes only as far back as the oldest Roma alive. So that’s a big cultural difference from us.’” And that difference emerges dramatically in Turow’s mesmerizing latest legal thriller, Testimony.
Most of Turow’s earlier novels involve attorneys in fictional Kindle County, Illinois, and are courtroom dramas. Testimony somewhat departs from the pattern. Bill ten Boom is a successful Dutch-American lawyer—from Kindle County, like the others—who moves to the Hague in the throes of a mid-life crisis to accept a job as a prosecutor at the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ten Boom, who goes by the name “Boom,” works with a Belgian forensic anthropologist in search of evidence about a crime against humanity that may have been committed by a now-fugitive Bosnian war criminal—or by American soldiers at a base near the site of the atrocity. Evidence emerges pointing in either direction. Boom’s investigation is complicated when he becomes involved in a torrid affair with the woman who brought the case to the court, an advocate for the Roma. Esma Czarni, beautiful, charming, and possibly brilliant, is also thoroughly untrustworthy.
But Czarni is not the only confounding character in the tale. You’ll also meet Laza Kajevic, the former president of Bosnia who has been on the run from war-crimes investigators for a decade. “Kajevic was in a category of his own, a political leader whose charisma and rage had been enough to lead an entire nation into a realm beyond conscience.” Equally fascinating are General Layton Merrill, the former top NATO commander hounded from the military in disgrace over adultery, and his former master sergeant, who describes herself as a “bull dyke cross-dressing half-breed.” She is a genius at logistics.
Though the story opens at a pre-trial hearing in an ICC courtroom, the action that follows is set elsewhere, mostly in Bosnia. Turow’s description of the poverty-stricken villages, the tragic history of the land, and Roma culture is unfailingly moving. He’s clearly a dogged researcher—and a talented wordsmith.
Boom’s perspective on his work is firmly grounded. “I know this much,” he tells the investigator assigned to him. “Justice is good. I accept the value of testimony, of letting the victims be heard. But consequences are essential. People can’t believe in civilization without being certain that a society will organize itself to do what it can to make things right.”
In his acknowledgements at the back of the novel, Turow writes, “I share with Boom the belief that, given the enduring reality of wartime atrocities, the ICC is indispensable in making the world more just. I hope that in time the United States lends its moral authority to the Court by ratifying the treaty we signed . . . I regard US fears of the Court, while far from fanciful, as misplaced and at odds with the US’s long-term interest in supporting the rule of law around the world.”
About the author
Over the past 30 years, Chicago attorney and novelist Scott Turow has written 11 works of fiction. Included are some of the legal thrillers most familiar to readers—and moviegoers, as several have been adapted to film. Among those you might recognize are Presumed Innocent, The Burden of Proof, and Reversible Errors. All three were bestsellers and made their way into theaters. Turow has also written three nonfiction books. His work has been translated into 40 languages and has sold a total of more than 30 million copies.
@@@@ (4 out of 5)
If you favor mysteries and thrillers full of surprises, you’ll love The Crow Girl by the Swedish writing team that publishes under the name Erik Axl Sund. No matter how shrewd and analytical you might be, I predict that you won’t figure out who’s who and what’s what until at least close to the end of this staggeringly complex novel. And, unless you read at a blistering pace, this is not a book you’ll finish at one sitting: the hardcover edition runs to 784 pages.
To say that I enjoyed this novel would be misleading. At times it’s gruesome beyond belief. And I found the constant use of long Swedish place names distracting. Yet the writing is devilishly clever. It’s difficult to put the book down. In fact, I found it impossible.
It’s difficult to exaggerate just how complicated this story is. It’s a tale about pedophilia, serial murder, unhappy marriages, dissociative identity disorder, a fundamentalist Christian sect in Lapland, the Great Famine in the Ukraine, the Holocaust, and Swedish police procedures. Got that? No? I understand. I could never have imagined a single story linking all these themes.
The Crow Girl opens like so many other crime stories. The mutilated body of a young immigrant boy is discovered, and Detective Superintendent Jeanette Kihlberg from the Stockholm police is assigned to the case. But neither the police chief nor the prosecutor who both have authority over her will provide her with the necessary resources. Then the bodies of two other young boys are found nearby. Evidence links the three murders, so Kihlberg is faced with tracking down a serial killer, on her own time when necessary.
To gain insight into the psychopathology of serial murderers, the Superintendent enlists the help of a brilliant psychologist, Sofia Zetterlund. It soon develops that both women are stuck in unhappy marriages, so you’ll quickly begin to wonder where that will lead. And that’s only the first of a long list of complications and surprises that come to light again and again in this masterful tale.
The Crow Girl is the first book in the Victoria Bergman trilogy. The remaining two books in the trilogy are not yet available in English translation, nor is the authors’ fourth novel.