Karen Dionne: The Marsh King’s Daughter

Every once in a while you read a book that’s so good, you can’t look up until you finish, and it’s so clear and specific and moving that you know it’s the book the author was meant to write. This novel, set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is indelible in every way: setting, story and character. Dionne frames her novel with Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Marsh King’s Daughter, and opens with a woman named Helena relating, in first person, that she’s a kidnapping survivor.

The scenario seems all too tragically familiar – Jaycee Dugard, Elizabeth Smart, even the movie, Room – but as Dionne fleshes it out it becomes very much her own story. Helena is the product of an abduction. She grew up in a remote area of the UP in a tiny cabin with only her mother and father. As it’s the only life she knows, it takes her a long time to puzzle out quite what’s wrong about it. read more

Steve Hamilton: Exit Strategy

Steve Hamilton’s Exit Strategy, the second book in his Nick Mason series, begins with the kind of slam-bang bravura action sequence that we’ve come to expect before the credits in a James Bond or Bourne movie. Nick must infiltrate a heavily guarded eighty-two-story building, elude or incapacitate at least a dozen Federal Marshals, eliminate a prospective witness and then escape before the big explosion. Adding to the degree of difficulty is Nick’s reluctance to kill innocent people.

Exit Strategy is built around several expertly dramatized set pieces like this, where Nick must rub out targets who are heavily guarded by professionals on high alert.  Action sequences may seem basic, but their actual execution takes a very adroit hand to delineate who is doing what to whom. You have only to read a bad thriller or watch a bad action movie (no names please) to see that pacing, sure description and accuracy are crucial, and the lack of them excruciating. read more

Michael Palmer and Daniel Palmer: Mercy

Every now and then I have a teeny tiny “free reading” window—when I’m not reading books for Mystery Scene or for the store newsletter or by authors who are nice enough to come and visit us—so when I unpacked a recent shipment and found a new Michael Palmer paperback during this last such free reading moment, I practically squealed with delight. I love these books and have found that since Palmer’s death, and the pick-up of the series by his son, Daniel, there has been no let-up in quality or change in style or storytelling. Unlike his Dad, Daniel himself is not a doctor, but the medical details seem absolutely real. read more

Nicholas Petrie: The Drifter

While I am not very interested in the mechanics of violence—i.e., action scenes—Petrie is pretty good at them. This lean, mean, stripped down novel about an Iraqi war vet with serious PTSD grabs you from the start as he climbs under a porch to remove and subdue a large, smelly and hostile dog. It’s unclear why he’s under the porch, who the little boy on the porch is, or why exactly he has to remove the dog, but as the book progresses the whys and whos come into focus.

It becomes clear that the main character—the drifter of the title—Pete, is living in his truck because he can’t bear to be indoors and he’s repairing this particular porch because it belonged to a fellow vet who committed suicide. He feels he let his friend down and is trying to make it up to him. read more

Ruth Ware: The Woman in Cabin 10

cabin10First of all, kudos to Ruth Ware for not calling this “The GIRL in Cabin 10”. Thank you, Ms. Ware, for writing a book about adults and referring to them as such. Second of all, I was a huge fan of her first novel, In a Dark, Dark Wood, and this one is even better. No kidding. The skills she brought to her first novel are both refined and sharpened here.

The book opens with travel journalist Lo Blacklock waking up alone in her London apartment to the sounds of a burglar. While she’s only slightly injured, she’s terrified and feels invaded, and her panic doesn’t abate when the locksmith changing her locks mentions that lots of time burglars come back. She ends up sleeping at her boyfriend’s apartment – he’s away on a work trip – and he wakes her up when he returns only to be rewarded with a punch in the face. read more

Hank Phillippi Ryan: Say No More

saynomoreSometimes the cultural zeitgeist affects writers even more than others, and this year I’ve read several novels addressing sexual violence and even more specifically, the rape culture that exists on college campuses. Jamie reviewed two recent memoirs, The Red Parts and Jane Doe January, involving real cases, and I was captivated earlier in the year by Allison Leotta’s The Last Good Girl. Hank Phillippi Ryan is now joining the fray with her latest, Say No More.

Ryan and Leotta are a fair comparison – both are proactive women who have or have had real life careers where they can make a change: Ryan as an on-air, Emmy winning reporter in Boston, and Leotta as a former sex crimes prosecutor. Both are no nonsense writers who do not mince words, a quality I never fail to appreciate. Both write the kind of thoughtful thriller that keeps a reader turning pages and thinking afterward. read more

Brian Freeman: Goodbye to the Dead

51n4dDPJuzL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Anyone who has read any of Brian Freeman’s other Jonathan Stride novels set in Duluth know Stride is haunted by the death of his wife, Cindy. He’s in the present happily dating a woman named Serena but it’s been an itch I couldn’t scratch throughout the series – what was Cindy like? How did she die? (I knew she had cancer but the details were murky). What was her relationship with Stride like? Well, readers, those questions are answered at last and I could not have immersed myself more in this novel as I drank in the details of Stride’s marriage. Mr. Freeman, of course, as usual, includes a kick ass thriller on top of all this, so the book is literally impossible to put down. read more

Linda Castillo: Among the Wicked

512arl5LsTL._SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_The first chapter of this novel is a master class on how to kick off a gripping thriller. We meet an unnamed woman as she sneaks out of—somewhere?—we just find out it’s very cold and she has to be quiet. We join her on her escape and ultimate chase and death, caring about her more and more the more we read. In indelible strokes and in a short amount of space—only 9 pages—Castillo introduces her story conflict, brings us a character we care about and are invested in, and establishes a vivid setting. Really, if you want to write a gripping crime novel, this would be a great chapter to check out as an example. But if you’re a reader, like most of us, you’ll simply want to find out what’s next. read more

David Bell: Since She Went Away

27190380If you want a compelling reading experience, just pick up a David Bell book. Reading the first page can be like leaning over a suspense generating machine—the gears of the story will grab any loose time you have and draw you in irresistibly. Take, for instance, the first few lines of his latest, Since She Went Away:

Five police cars. Three news vans. And one coroner’s wagon.

Boom. There’s obviously something intriguing going on here and the reader will want to know what it is.

Bell’s developing story is anything but mechanical, however, but powered, as most good stories are, by realistic, multifaceted characters. It alternates between two viewpoints; that of Jenna Barton and her son Jared. Jenna is a nurse and single mother who can be a little too candid at times. Her main concern these days is her best friend Celia who has been missing for three months. Since the perpetually late Jenna was supposed to meet Celia at the park the night she disappeared, Jenna has been wracked with guilt and obsessed with the search: read more

Owen Laukkanen: The Watcher in the Wall

9780399174544This is the first one of Laukkanen’s books I’ve read – the subject interested me – and now I know what to say when someone has read every Harlan Coben title. Give Owen Laukkanen a try. This is a thriller with a heart and a brain, a difficult combination to resist. Laukkanen’s series characters are Minneapolis FBI agents Kirk Stevens and Carla Windermere, and Stevens is caught off guard early on when one of his daughter’s classmates commits suicide.

Windemere has her own issues with a classmate’s suicide many years ago and she takes a personal interest in this young man’s death, which, upon examination, appears to have been encouraged by someone else. While the FBI agents are on a tech trail trying to figure out what happened and find the instigator, the parallel story shows the reader just what’s going on. read more