Karen Dionne: The Wicked Sister

This is an excellent suspense novel, so excellent that I devoured it in a single day.  It gives a reader plenty to think about – but that’s after you’ve careened through it’s pages.  I absolutely could not stop reading.

Set in Michigan’s beautiful upper peninsula, the book alternates narratives between that of Rachel’s, in the present, and that of Jenny’s and Peter’s in the past.  It’s not immediately clear how the two connect but when they do, you really can’t look away.   Rachel is living in a mental hospital for killing her mother at age 11 and watching as her father then killed himself.  She has no memory of these events. read more

Hank Phillippi Ryan: The First to Lie

Hank Phillippi Ryan was on the cutting edge of the new wave of what I think of as “fem jep” with a psychological edge.  Other writers like Gillian Flynn and Sophie Hannah were also early, excellent adopters of this formula.  I read many of these books – they’re a blast – but I got to thinking recently, what sets one apart from another?  Almost all of them have an insanely clever hook, and Ryan is no exception to this particular trope.

But what really, really draws me into Hank Ryan’s books is her pure empathy for her characters.  Maybe it’s her years of working as a reporter, listening and taking in other people’s stories, but however she comes by this quality in her writing, it’s an extraordinary one, and one that’s often missing from similar fem jep thrillers.  It makes you completely invested in her characters and to me, also amps up the suspense, because if you truly care about the people you are reading about, bad things happening to them are that much worse. read more

Harlan Coben: the Boy from the Woods

Harlan Coben’s The Boy from the Woods is one of his fresher – and angrier – books in awhile.  He’s using lawyer Hester Crimstein as his main character (mostly), and as readers, we get some of the fierce Hester’s backstory, as she listens to her grandson when he tells her he’s worried about the disappearance of a bullied girl in his class.

There’s also the titular character, the “boy from the woods,” aka Wilde, a man who was discovered as a 6 or 8 year old in the woods, apparently having survived living on his own for quite a while.  He learned English from breaking into abandoned homes and watching television but as a grown man, he’s still most comfortable alone in the woods. read more

Julia Spencer-Fleming: Hid from Our Eyes

If you’re a fan of Julia Spencer-Fleming’s, you’ll be delighted to know that Hid From Our Eyes picks up right where One Was a Soldier left off.  Since it’s been awhile I’ll recap: Episcopal priest Clare Fergusson and her husband Russ Van Alstyne have welcomed their first child (read the book to find out the child’s name and sex).  Clare is in addiction recovery, and believably – for anyone familiar with addiction – she teeters from sober to wishing she wasn’t.  That’s the rich background. read more

Cara Black: Three Hours in Paris

This book will be available on April 7, 2020.

This ticking clock thriller feels like the book Cara Black has long wanted to write, it’s so explosive, so taut, and so impossible to stop reading.  The propulsive narrative follows Kate Rees, a young American sent to assassinate Hitler when he visits Paris for three hours in 1940.  The set up introduces Kate as she’s waiting with her sniper rifle for Hitler’s appearance; then it goes back in time, very briefly, to establish Kate as a person.  She’d been living in Scotland with her Welsh husband and their baby daughter when she loses them both to a German bomb, making her determined to fight the Germans with every bit of herself. read more

Carol Goodman: The Sea of Lost Girls

Carol Goodman’s luscious prose doesn’t mask her storytelling drive, and it’s a haunting and unforgettable combination.  The Sea of Lost Girls is set at a girl’s boarding school in Maine, centering on the family of Tess, Harmon and Rudy.  Tess and Harmon both work at the school; Rudy is Tess’s son and Harmon’s stepson, as well as a student at the school. The book kicks off with him texting his mother in the middle of the night, and she rushes off to find out what’s wrong.

As a reader, I was instantly drawn into the dynamic between Tess and her son, who has had some troubles but whom she loves fiercely.  Her greatest goal is that of any mother’s: to protect him.  And, as it turns out, he needs it.  His girlfriend, Lila, whom he had been fighting with, turns up dead the next morning and suspicion falls on both Rudy and Harmon in turn. read more

Simone St. James: The Sun Down Motel

Simone St. James is one of the best of all modern gothic novelists, and importantly, the ghosts in her books are real, they’re not actually mysterious human strangers hanging around in vacant buildings for nefarious reasons.  She combines her ghost stories with cracking good mysteries, an irresistible combination, and unlike practically any other mystery novelist, the characters are pretty much exclusively female.  There are a few male characters for sure, but they are more on the window dressing side of things.  It’s the ladies that carry the narrative. read more

Hilary Davidson: Don’t Look Down

This tightly woven thriller-slash-police procedural is set in New York City, and like that city, the pace does not let up, from first page to last.  It opens with Jo Greaver, a young cosmetics magnate, on her way to meet her blackmailer, toting a huge bag of cash.  To the reader it’s not clear why she’s being blackmailed or who is doing the blackmailing, but it’s very clear something is very wrong and that very definitely something will go wrong.

It does, and it’s a cascade of wrong things, things that string poor Jo up tighter and tighter.  There’s a shootout at the blackmail meetup, leaving Jo injured.  She attempts to get through her day pretending she’s fine but the pain finally kicks in.  There’s a dead, or at least seriously injured person, at the blackmail meetup.  And the police have a bag load of evidence tagging Jo as the murderer. read more

Sophie Hannah: Perfect Little Children

There’s a classic French novel called Le Grand Meaulnes, which is basically in two parts. The first is about a runaway schoolboy who stumbles into a marvelous, fairy tale experience in an isolated, ancient mansion in the countryside. The second half is the prosaic, logical explanation of this seemingly magic occurrence and the resulting quotidian grind of real life. In a way it’s satisfying to know what really happened, but in another way you want to rip the book in two and throw the ending out of the window. Or in the words of the marvelously named Sacheverell Sitwell, “In the end, it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation.” read more

Hank Phillippi Ryan: The Murder List

What makes a thriller good?  What makes one stand out from the pack of – let’s be honest – the many, many books at the moment about women in jeopardy who have lost their memories or are unreliable narrators or have terrible husbands?  Let’s start with the main character.  Lawyer in training Rachel North has none of those problems.  Her memory is intact and her husband seems like a doll in a Red Sox cap.  She seems reliable and balanced.  She’s just – in a situation.

Thrillers need to be plotted like clockwork, without the gears showing to the reader.  So someone as gifted as Hank Phillippi Ryan can introduce many characters onto her canvas, turn the wheel of the plot, and a previously introduced character will unexpectedly show up where you least expect it.  Gears at work here, but not on display.  Masterful. read more