Tag Archives: thriller

Review: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Where did I get this Advanced Reader's Edition? Penguin Random House and the Reading Room sent it to me, no strings attached.

Where did I get this Advanced Reader’s Edition? Penguin Random House and the Reading Room sent it to me, no strings attached.

Jason Dessen has a good life. He teaches physics at the local college, he has a wife he adores and a well-adjusted fifteen-year-old son. If he sometimes feels regret for the research career in quantum physics he abandoned when his then-girlfriend Daniela told him she was pregnant, it’s only a momentary emotion.

Unlike most people, Jason gets to find out what life would have been like if he’d made a different choice. After a masked attacker abducts him on his way home one night, he awakens in an unfamiliar world where he never married or had a child, where his research on quantum superposition has led to a world-changing breakthrough. (That’s not a spoiler, it’s in the blurb!)

As Jason races to reclaim the life he lost, the implications of each decision he makes take on new and urgent meaning. Part breathless thriller, part SF cautionary tale, Dark Matter manages to create genuine emotional impact while it hurtles toward a surprising and thought-provoking conclusion. It will leave you pondering your own life choices, and where all those other roads might have taken you.

Genre: Science fiction techno-thriller with philosophical implications.

Read it if: You love Michael Crichton’s books but always wished his characters had a little more emotional depth; your favorite ’90s show was Sliders; you like inventive thrillers that demand to be read in one gulp.

Skip it if: You couldn’t care less about Schrodinger’s cat; you only like hard science fiction with all the science-y details fully explained; you categorically reject the concept of the multiverse.

Movie-worthy: Yes, please! I would see this movie in the theater, preferably in IMAX 3-D.



Review: Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

Where did I get this book? I requested an ARC from the publisher, and they sent me one!

Where did I get this book? I requested an ARC from the publisher, and they sent me one!

Ten people are on board a small private plane when it leaves Martha’s Vineyard for New York. Eighteen minutes after take-off, the plane plummets into the ocean, the reason for the crash a mystery.

One man, a middle-aged painter named Scott Burroughs, survives and manages to save a four-year-old child. Scott quickly becomes the object of media obsession and government scrutiny. Why was he on the plane? How did he live through the crash? Was it part of a conspiracy or a terrorist plot? Or is he just lucky?

Scott has spent the last year on Martha’s Vineyard trying to start over. His youthful promise as an artist never bloomed into true success and he spent far too much time drinking himself into oblivion. With a year of sobriety behind him and a new series of paintings to show, Scott has finally found a cautious hope for the future when he accepts a ride on the doomed plane. The circumstances that led him to be on the flight, the chance moments that allowed him to survive: do they mean something, or are they simply random coincidences in a world determined by chance?

Thematically, Before the Fall reminded me a bit of Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey; the author looks at each passenger on the flight in turn, examining each life and the path that led to that plane at that moment. Ben Kipling, a rich banker involved in some shady dealings, and his wife Sarah. Maggie Bateman, the woman who invites Scott to join them on the flight to New York; her husband David, the plane’s owner and the head of a polarizing 24-hour news channel; their nine-year-old daughter, Rachel, who had survived a kidnapping as a toddler. The family bodyguard, Gil Baruch. Pilot James Melody, and his crew Emma Lightner and co-pilot Charlie Busch.

As the search for the plane’s flight recorder and black box drags on, conspiracy theories thrive and speculations about Scott’s private life spread unchecked. Judged on plot alone, this novel is a fantastic read, a suspenseful search for the truth. Yet it is also a thoughtful and moving look at the myriad choices that make a life.

When I requested this ARC, I didn’t know much about it.  Before the Fall wildly exceeded my (admittedly non-existent) expectations. The official publication date is May 31, 2016–I predict a Gone Girl-level runaway bestseller!

Genre: Suspenseful disaster novel that will make you ponder the existential mysteries of life.

Read it if: You love books that hook you immediately and refuse to let go until you’ve reached the end; you enjoy plots that involve art and artists; you like your suspenseful thrillers with a heaping helping of deft characterization and compassionate humanity.

Skip it if: You have a phobia about air travel; you dislike strong language; you have a lot of things to do and can’t afford to stay up all night reading this book.

Movie-worthy: YES. This would make a fantastic movie. I demand to see this movie!

Review: The 500 by Matthew Quirk

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Where did I get this book? My dad gave it to me. (He liked it too!)

Mike Ford, the hero of The 500, is a Horatio Alger success story–raised by a single mother after his father went to prison, he dabbled in crime but found discipline and purpose in the military. His hard work pays off big time:  while pursuing dual degrees in law and politics at Harvard, he earns a coveted spot at the Davies Group, a firm with legendary influence in the world of Washington power.

Soon Mike has the respect he’s yearned for, along with more money than he could have imagined. Until, of course, he discovers that his new bosses are into some nefarious activities and that he’s expected to participate. Henry Davies, the founder of the Davies Group, believes that everyone can be bought. It’s just a matter of finding the right price, the perfect pressure point, the secret sin.

If this sounds an awful lot like The Firm, you’re not wrong. The plot trajectory is similar, but The 500 takes place in a distinctly Washingtonian milieu. (It was especially fun for me when the characters roamed around the northern Virginia suburbs, my new home since last summer.) The author previously wrote for The Atlantic and has a flair for authentic detail. Mike’s distinctive voice and the novel’s fast pacing make for an entertaining read, even if some of the wilder action sequences require a certain suspension of disbelief.

Genre: Politico-legal thriller with DC street cred.

Read it if: You harbor deep suspicions about the integrity of our country’s leaders; you really loved The Firm; you’re looking for an action-packed, fast-paced read.

Skip it if: You thought this was the sequel to Kass Morgan’s The 100; you prefer to believe in the honesty and incorruptibility of lawmakers and law enforcement; you are a big fan of the artist Dan Flavin.

Movie-worthy: Sure, I’d see that movie.

Review: The Swimmer by Joakim Zander

Where did I get this book? The library!

Where did I get this book? The library!

This intense thriller by Joakim Zander does not read like a first novel; the blurb on the cover compares it to John LeCarre at his best, and that’s no exaggeration.

The swimmer of the title is an unnamed operative, telling the story of his career from Damascus to Langley, from Iraq to Afghanistan, following the shifting allegiances of his employers. One memory haunts him: the baby daughter he left behind when he fled Syria for his life.

The perspective shifts between this nameless first-person narrator and a number of other unwilling players in an intricate and deadly game. In Brussels, Klara Waldeen works for a Swedish member of the European Parliament. Her old boyfriend, a PhD candidate, has become something of an expert in the legalities of war, in no small part because his unusual background–he was a Muslim paratrooper in the Swedish military before attending law school–lends him a unique authenticity. A third Swede, a high-powered young lawyer at a prestigious PR firm, is lured into ethical gray areas with promises of wealth and status.

Zander brings emotional depth and complexity to his characters, and he has a flair for vivid description and unexpected twists that still feel grounded in reality. (I did find it a bit funny that he refers to types of furniture as if every reader knows a Hurdal bed from a Malm dresser. It might be handy to have an IKEA catalog handy if you want the full visual.)  The Swimmer is not the type of generic thriller you zoom through and forget when the final page is turned. It’s the type that stays with you and leaves you wondering when the author’s next book comes out.

Genre: International spy thriller with European flair.

Read it if: You love vintage LeCarre and exceptionally well done thrillers; you enjoy international intrigue that ranges from Washington DC to remote Swedish archipelagos; you like moral complexity and antiheroes.

Skip it if: You expect all Swedish thrillers to be The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; you are a serious and easily offended k.d. lang fan; you prefer to avoid profanity and ethical gray areas.

Movie-worthy: Oh, I’ll bet someone’s working on that already.


Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the TrainEvery weekday Rachel takes the train into London, gazing at the row of houses next to a regular stop on the train’s route, watching in particular for one young couple whose happy married life she likes to imagine. She’s even named them: Jess and Jason. So far, so mildly creepy. When “Jess” goes missing and Rachel realizes she may have information that could help solve the mystery, we know we’re firmly in Hitchcock territory.

The missing woman’s real name is Megan, and she walked away from her home one Saturday night and never returned. The perspective alternates between Rachel, narrating her take on the investigation, and Megan, telling her story from a year before the disappearance.

It’s difficult to say much about The Girl on the Train without ruining the slow reveal as author Paula Hawkins subverts the reader’s expectations. Whatever you think you know as the story begins, prepare to be surprised. Even at the very end, when it becomes clear what really happened, the tension only builds. The fast pacing and alternating viewpoints make for a quick, intense read.

Genre: Irresistibly twisty thriller.

Read it if: You’re a fan of Gone Girl, The Girl with a Clock for a Heart, Hitchcock movies, unreliable narrators, or trains.

Skip it if: You don’t like surprises; you are hungover; you are too busy to read a whole novel in one sitting.

Movie-worthy: Definitely.

Review: Killing Floor by Lee Child

Killing Floor by Lee ChildIn Killing Floor, Lee Child introduces the world to Jack Reacher, an Army brat turned MP. Retired after 13 years in the military, Reacher takes to the open road. He carries no ID, no credit cards, no photographs–nothing that might tie him down or connect him to the world.

That fierce independence becomes a liability when he wanders into a small Georgia town and finds himself the primary suspect in a brutal murder. As he becomes enmeshed in the details of the case, he discovers a personal connection that changes the equation in a big way. He has a stake in finding and punishing the perpetrators.

At the heart of the plot is a giant coincidence, and it’s a bit of a stretch to believe it. It helps that even Jack Reacher acknowledges the unlikely randomness of this particular twist. He accepts it and moves on, and the reader has no choice but to follow suit.

While the plot races along, it’s really the protagonist that makes Killing Floor such an exceptional read. Reacher has a highly practical, calculating intelligence. He does not hesitate to kill and he feels no remorse afterward, yet he’s not amoral or unfeeling. He suffers the shakes when the adrenlin wears off like anyone else. As Reacher describes it, relating another character’s acceptance of a terrible situation: “He had stopped worrying and started relaxing. He was up on that plateau where you just did whatever needed doing. I knew that place. I lived there.”

In fact, Reacher lives in the moment in a way that’s almost enviable. When he appreciates a lovely day, a good meal, or a drive in the country with a beautiful woman, it’s with the knowledge that these moments will not last.

I plan to read as many of the books in this series as I can as part of the TBR Reading Pile Challenge. The important thing is to read them in order–I think I’ve actually accumulated most of the books at yard sales, library sales, etc., and this handy website will help me keep them straight.

On a completely unrelated side note, reading this book set in a small Georgia town outside Atlanta right after finishing The Walking Dead compendium left me wondering how Jack Reacher would fare in a zombie apocalypse. I’m guessing he’d do really well.

Genre: First-person conspiracy thriller

Read it if: You appreciate a loner antihero with mad skills taking out the bad guys; you don’t mind having mixed feelings about the actions of the guy whose head you’re hanging out in; you are deeply suspicious of well-maintained small towns.

Skip it if: You prefer your violence off-screen; you like good guys who are, you know, good; you can’t abide a plot-pivotal coincidence.

Movie-worthy: After reading this, I’m surprised it took them so long to make a Jack Reacher movie. Almost as surprised as I am that they cast Tom Cruise.

My Favorite Reads for 2014

Another year is nearly over, and what a year it’s been! I self-published my YA dystopian novel, Among the Joyful, fulfilling a lifelong dream; moved from Chennai, India to Yangon, Myanmar (a.k.a. Rangoon, Burma); and, of course, read lots and lots of books. Here’s my idiosyncratic list of the best books I read in 2014:

Best Book I Should Have Read As A Kid

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. This award winning kid’s book came out in 1978, so why didn’t I read it until it showed up on my 5th grader’s winter break book list? Who knows? It’s a smart, fun, and twisty puzzle with great characters.

Best Extra-Sciency Science Fiction Novel

The Martian by Andy Weir. This suspenseful thriller is making lots of “best of” lists this year, and with good reason. Imagine a lone astronaut, left for dead on Mars, trying to survive against the odds. Now imagine he’s a wise-cracking smart ass with astonishing science knowledge and relentless optimism. This book is hard to put down, even when it’s making water out of oxygen and rocket fuel.

Best Fantasy Book

The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle. I don’t read a lot of fantasy but this slender, lovely book blew my mind. It was first published in 1968 but the story is fairy tale timeless.

Best Collection of Short Stories

Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood. One of my all time favorite authors, telling stories that stay with the reader long after the book is back on the shelf.

Best Book Featuring Zombies

The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey. I first looked at this book because Joss Whedon blurbed it, then I read a free chapter online before the book’s release and was hooked. This is a haunting, relentless book with a breathtakingly perfect ending. Loved it.

Best Mystery/Crime Novel

The Burning Room by Michael Connelly. I hope Michael Connelly keeps writing Harry Bosch books forever, because I can’t get enough of this series. Connelly is in top form with this latest entry and I didn’t want it to end–because who knows how many more there will be?

Best Book About Burma

From the Land of Green Ghosts by Pascal Khoo Thwe. I’ve read several books about or set in Burma since moving here in August, but this moving and poetic memoir resonates like no other.

Best YA Book

Blue Lily, Lily Blue by Maggie Stiefvater. I love the characters in the moody, magical, atmospheric Raven Boys series, especially Ronan and Blue. I’m already craving book four!

Best Big Fat Book About Magicians

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. This tale of competing magicians in an alt-history Britain where magic is real was a complete and fascinating world in itself. I think it sat unread on my shelf for so long because it was so big and daunting, but it was worth its weight in literary gold.

Best Overall

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. I love how David Mitchell tosses all conception of genre into the shredder and writes exactly what he wants, stories of epic scope and wild inventiveness, intricately structured and brilliantly written. Also, extra points for a gorgeous cover.

So that’s my list. Here’s looking forward to another year of happy reading in 2015!

Review: The Weight of Blood by Laura McHugh

The Weight of BloodThe little town of Henbane, Missouri isn’t exactly Mayberry in The Weight of Blood, a tense debut thriller by Laura McHugh. For one thing, Henbane is another name for nightshade, the reader’s first clue that the town is hiding some poisonous secrets.

The story is told primarily from two alternating perspectives: Lucy Dane, a teenage girl raised by her father after her mother mysteriously disappeared; and Lila Petrovich, Lucy’s mother, newly arrived in Henbane.

Lucy’s story opens with the discovery of a mutilated corpse in a tree across from her uncle Crete’s store: someone has murdered Lucy’s mentally disabled neighbor and childhood friend Cheri, a girl no one has ever cared too much about. In the second storyline, Lila is an orphaned teenager who has aged out of foster care and is trying to find her way in the world. She hopes the two-year contract she signed to work at Crete Dane’s store and farm will let her earn some money and get a fresh start in life.

As the parallel stories progress, it’s impossible not to feel terrified for both young women and the secrets and betrayals they face. The novel includes some brutal violence and can be truly disturbing at times, but the relentless plot makes it hard to put down. McHugh particularly excels at evoking the rural Ozark setting–you feel that you’re right there with Lila and Lucy as they try to understand what’s happening around them in the stultifying southern heat.

Genre: Southern Gothic thriller with an extra helping of gruesome.

Read it if: You like your tea sweet and your reads speedy; you’re not too squeamish about depictions of violence or the concept of squirrel dumplings; you’re a big fan of Deliverance or A Time to Kill.

Skip it if: You’re sensitive to scenes of violence against women; you get annoyed when your protagonists repeatedly do dangerous things without backup; you have a teenage daughter who will be visiting the Ozarks in the near future.

Movie-worthy: Sure. This book could be translated into anything from an Oscar-nominated film to a shlocky Lifetime movie.

Review: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining GirlsWhat would you do if you found a time portal? In Stephen King’s novel 11/22/63, one man uses a time portal to buy supplies for his restaurant at low, low 1960s prices; another uses it to try and prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. When Harper Curtis finds his way to the House in 1930s Chicago, he takes advantage of its time portal to seek out and brutally murder young women across six decades.

Something about the House calls to Harper, and one room in particular seems to imply that he has already committed horrible crimes, that his acts of violence exist outside of time. He targets women based on the extraordinary potential he sees in them–they shine in a way that perhaps only he can see.

The Shining Girls is creepy and seriously disturbing, not least because the glimpses we see of the murdered women feel like American Girl doll stories gone sickeningly wrong. It’s to the author’s credit that she leaves so much unanswered about them. We never know what these women could have achieved, what accomplishments their talents might have produced. Thanks to Harper, no one will ever know.

When Kirby Mazrachi survives the attack that was meant to kill her, she becomes convinced that her would-be murderer has killed before. With the help of a veteran journalist, Dan Velasquez, she searches for answers. This is a familiar element of many a serial killer thriller, but Beukes raises the stakes in terms of both her exceptional writing and the unique abilities of the murderer. It also helps that Kirby is a great character, resilient, stubborn and fiercely independent, yet also genuinely sympathetic. Seeing her through Dan’s eyes only increases the reader’s concern for her safety.

Beukes never explains the origin or nature of the House, leaving it to the reader to folow the Moebius strip of cause and effect. Asking how the House came to be what it is might be as pointless as asking how Harper can be human without the slightest trace of empathy or conscience. Some questions can’t be answered.

Genre: Intense, graphic thriller with a sci-fi twist

Read it if: You can’t resist the idea of a time-traveling serial killer,

Skip it if: Well, let’s put it this way: disembowelment. You probably know whether you should skip it at this point.

Movie-worthy: I get the chills just thinking about a movie of this book. I mentally cast Josh Holloway from Lost as Harper. “Sweetheart…”

Review: Lexicon by Max Barry

LexiconAlmost every time you turn on the TV or visit a website, someone is trying to convince you to make a purchase, choose a party, click a link. Max Barry takes that persuasive force to the next level: the level of the poets.

The poets use every persuasive means at their disposal, including an understanding of human personalities and neurolinguistics that gives them power over anyone they can correctly classify. Trained at a secretive and highly exclusive Academy, the poets must hide their true natures from each other in self-defense. They must learn to show no emotion, to want nothing. To be known is to be vulnerable. It is a tragically high price to pay for their abilities.

Wil Parke is the outlier, a man apparently immune to the poets’ influence, even to the “bareword,” a weapon of biblical proportion, said to be responsible for the fall of the Tower of Babel. His immunity makes him dangerous, and the poets will do anything to control him.

On one level, Lexicon is an artfully paced thriller about an apparently unremarkable Everyman caught in a vast conspiracy, and the poet who hunts both Wil and his protector. On another level, this novel is an intriguing exploration of language and the power it possesses, the myths and beliefs associated with words, and the fine line between speech and magic.

In this respect, Lexicon made me think of “Solitude,” a story by Ursula K. LeGuin (see my review of the anthology, Diverse Energies, in which it appears.) In “Solitude,” a society has developed cultural norms and traditions to ensure that no adult will ever have power over another. Visitors from a technologically advanced society deride the inhabitants’ fear of “magic” as mere ignorant superstition; what they fail to understand is that “magic” entails the power of charisma, the ability to persuade others and bend them to your will. This is exactly the magic practiced by the poets of Lexicon, with an added dose of neurolinguistic firepower for good measure.

Genre: Linguistic thriller

Read it if: You have a healthy respect for the power of language, and you know the difference between Yeats and Eliot.

Skip it if: You think the Academy sounds fun, like Hogwarts (it’s not.)

Movie-worthy: Sure, I’d see it! The guy who plays Jason on True Blood would make a good Wil Parke, I think.