Posts Tagged ‘thriller’

darkcornersI tried to take my time with Ruth Rendell’s Dark Corners (Scribner, digital galley), knowing there aren’t going to be any more books from the prolific British crime writer. Rendell, who also wrote as Barbara Vine, died in May at age 85, and it’s fitting that this final novel of psychological suspense offers a trademark tricky plot. So much for savoring every sentence — I was too busy flipping pages as Carl Martin’s life spirals out of control.

Carl’s a writer in his early 20s who has inherited a big house in an up-and-coming London neighborhood. Somewhat lazy and a little greedy, he rents the upstairs to the very first applicant, Dermott McKinnon, who seems a nice-enough fellow. Carl not only neglects to throw out his late father’s homeopathic remedies, he also sells some of the pills to an actress friend, who is then found dead. Carl feels bad, but he feels a lot worse when Dermott starts blackmailing him by withholding his rent. Even as Dermott further insinuates himself into Carl’s life, a young woman named Lizzie is taking advantage of her actress pal’s death, moving into her flat and wearing her wardrobe. Tsk, tsk. There will be consequences.

Rendell, always more interested in why than who, expertly juggles  her parallel plots, upping the ante with a murder and a kidnapping. We know her guilty characters are going to collide around some dark corner, but which one? Creepy.

banquetElizabeth George’s new doorstop, A Banquet of Consequences (Viking Penguin, review copy) features one of those poisonous characters you love to hate. Caroline Goodacre is a middle-aged meddler, an overprotective mother, spiteful wife and hypocritical friend, always ready with the withering put-down in hopes of wrong-footing her perceived adversary. But did she poison her employer, a famous feminist author, or was the fatal dose meant for her?

That’s the puzzle facing aristocratic Inspector Thomas Lynley of Scotland Yard and his workaday sidekick Sgt. Barbara Havers, who is threatened with transfer after haring off to Italy in the last book. But a Havers on good behavior is a less-effective detective, as Lynley points out to his boss (and former lover). Still, it takes Havers a while to shake off the short leash, which allows George time to digress on a number of subjects, from dogs trained to treat anxiety to Havers’ deplorable taste in T-shirts. Also, depression, abuse and suicide. If you like your books leisured and detailed with many, many characters, A Banquet of Consequences proves richly satisfying.

prettygirlsBack in the summer, Karin Slaughter wrote a nifty novella — Blonde Hair, Blue Eyes (HarperCollins, digital galley) — about a pretty college newspaper reporter looking into the disappearances of pretty women near the University of Georgia campus in 1991. Turns out that was the prequel to her hard-hitting fall thriller Pretty Girls (HarperCollins, digital galley). The Carroll family has never gotten over the unsolved disappearance of eldest daughter Julia some 20 years while a UGA student. The elder Carrolls’ marriage dissolved, sister Lydia turned to drugs, estranging herself from her sister Claire, who made a safe marriage to steady Paul. But after Paul is killed by a mugger in an alley with Claire as witness, Claire discovers nasty computer files hinting at her husband’s hidden life. Paul’s business partner wants the flash drive, as does the FBI. Claire is forced to ask Lydia for help, and the two show considerable ingenuity and guts confronting an unexpected foe and revelations about Julia’s disappearance.

Pretty Girls is not for the faint of heart nor weak of stomach. It’s grisly and twisted, and it grips like a hand from the grave.

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lexiconWord power! It’s way more than Reader’s Digest vocabulary quizzes. Words are weapons controlled by poets in Max Barry’s genre-melding, mind-bending novel Lexicon (Penguin, digital galley), the most fun I’ve had all summer.
The thrills begin in the first chapter when Australian Wil Parke is kidnapped in the Portland, Ore., airport, undergoes a quick personality test, survives a shoot-out and is whisked away in a van. The action switches to San Francisco where teen grifter Emily Griff is recruited to attend an exclusive academy outside Washington, D.C., where students study neuro-linguistics and the powers of persuasion. The most adept graduates take the names of poets, becoming agents for a secret society that uses words to control the minds of the unwitting populace. The enigmatic Yeats runs the organization; Eliot and Bronte are among the top agents, but Woolf has gone rogue. How is Wil Parke involved? It all has to do with a mysterious toxic event in Broken Hill, Australia, which killed thousands and wiped Wil’s memory clean. Emily’s connected, too, as is the discovery of an all-powerful “bareword.” Remember the Tower of Babel?
Barry’s smart, witty writing, well-defined characters and strong sense of place make his near-future world conspiracy of mind-hacking bizarre yet plausible. (Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean the bastards aren’t out to get you.) As Emily learns, words like “bewitched,” “fascinating” and “spellbound” were once literal magic. In Lexicon, they still are. Amazing!
homecomingThe fun continues in Carsten Stroud’s paranormal thriller The Homecoming (Knopf, digital galley), the sequel to last summer’s Niceville, in which a Southern town was beset by trigger-happy thieves, mysterious disappearances and Something Evil from beyond the grave. Detective Nick Kavanaugh returns to try and save the day from the treacherous thieves, possessed orphan Rainey Teague and the Something Evil, now appearing as a black miasma emanating from the Crater.
The story, which isn’t as far out nor as frenzied as the previous one, picks up two weeks after events in the first book with two mysterious plane crashes. Six months later, the mystery and mayhem intensify to include a shoot-out in a mall outdoors store and ghosts from a plantation past. The antique mirror, hidden by Nick’s wife Kate, exhibits its weird through-the-looking-glass characteristics, and strange “bone baskets” found in the Tulip River hint at more nastiness at work in Niceville. Happily, a fast pace and snappy dialogue encourage readers not to think too much and just go with the flow. Hang on, though, whitewater ahead and a third book.
starwars“In time so long ago begins our play/ In star-crossed galaxy far, far away.” If literary snark’s your thing, don’t missWilliam Shakespeare’s Star Wars (Quirk Books, digital galley), a five-act mash-up, “Verily: A New Hope,” in iambic pentameter by the clever Ian Doescher. He borrows from familiar Shakespeare passages — C-3P0 taking off from Richard III: “Now is the summer of our happiness/ Made winter by this sudden fierce attack;” Luke Skywalker doing Hamlet: “Alas, poor stormtrooper, I knew you not;” Princess Leia singing a “hey, nonny, nonny” variation from Much Ado as Alderaan explodes.
Yes, it’s silly, especially when R2D2 beeps in and Jabba speaks jibber-jabber, but the Chorus has an Elizabethan field day: “Mos Eisley now is left behind at last/ While newer scenes come into view apace/ As Han’s Millenn’um Falcon flies far fast/ The action of our play moves back to space!”
May the forsooth be with you.

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My list of heroines-I-wanna-be grows ever longer — Nancy Drew, Scout Finch, Elizabeth Bennet, Harriet Vane, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Hermione Granger, Thursday Next. And now Mwfanwy  Thomas.

Who is Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas? Myfanwy herself would like to know. At the beginning of Daniel O’Malley’s clever genre-bender, The Rook, “On Her Majesty’s Supernatural Secret Service,” a young woman wakes up in a London park with no memory of herself. A letter in her pocket, which begins “Dear You” and is signed “Sincerely, Me” tells her that she now inhabits the body of Myfanwy Alice Thomas. A second letter offers her a choice — leave London immediately and assume a new, moneyed identity far, far away, or become Myfanwy Thomas and track down the killers of the real Myfanwy’s memories. The second choice is more dangerous given that the new Myfanwy is surrounded by motionless bodies wearing latex gloves and that unknown enemies are hot on her trail. Move, Myfanwy!

More letters from “Me” provide explanations and instructions as Myfanwy pretends to be her former self, a high-level operative in the Chequy, the secret government agency that guards Britain against supernatural threats. There are more of these than you might imagine, and Myfanwy gets on-the-job training almost immediately when she’s called on to fight a mysterious, enveloping purple fungus. Thank goodness she has some special powers. She’s going to need them as she not only contends with ghosts, ghoulies and grafters, but also a conspiracy within the shadow world of the Chequy.

This might sound a tad complicated, but O’Malley’s narrative is fast-paced and funny, a la Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels and the BBC’s Dr. Who-spinoff, Torchwood. There’s some similar deft world-building as well, the villains are dastardly indeed, and there’s more to appealing Mywfany than meets the eye. Fun, fun, fun. Sign me up for the sequel.

Open Book: I read a digital edition of The Rook by Daniel O’Malley (Little, Brown) provided by the publisher through NetGalley. Since it is about to expire, I’ll be buying a copy to keep and reread.

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Last summer, Justin Cronin’s The Passage had me warily looking up at trees lest one of his soul-sucking “virals” be lurking in the limbs all ready to rend me limb-to-limb. This summer, thanks to Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, no more looking up at full moons while walking the dog.

Granted, my chances of being attacked by a werewolf are about nil, considering that at the beginning of Duncan’s wild tale, Jake Marlowe gets news that he’s the last of his kind. Poor Jake. He’s a world-weary 200-plus-years, but it doesn’t look like he’ll live to be 400 (normal werewolf lifespan). In fact, he’s probably not going to make it past the next full moon because the highly organized anti-occult hunters close on his trail are just waiting until his next transformation. It wouldn’t be sporting to kill the man while he’s not a monster.

Jake only goes to ground in Wales, where he was turned in 1842, to finish up his memoirs, full of lust, gore and philosophical musings. But then the chase is on because someone wants Jake alive — a beautiful woman fronting for the vampires who think werewolves may hold the secret to letting them walk in the sunshine.

Yes, there are vampires but not True Blood ones. No sex for these foul-smelling, supercilious creatures, unlike the horny lycanthropes permanently on the prowl.  Jake prefers expensive escorts so he can remain emotionally detached, but that’s before he spots an American woman on a train. Life might be worth living after all.

The Last Werewolf  is often darkly funny (“Reader, I ate him”), full of knowing literary and pop culture references. The thriller is also beautifully written as Jake describes the life lupine.  “The thought, ‘wilderness,’ stirred the ghost animal, ran cold fingers through the pelt that wasn’t there; mountains like black glass and slivers of snow and the blood-hot howl on ice-flavoured air. . .”

However, The Last Werewolf is not for the faint of heart, the weak of stomach, or anyone put off by explicit sex and graphic violence. Yes, it’s been optioned for a movie. And yes, wouldn’t you know it, Duncan leaves us hungry for a sequel. Meanwhile, no moonlight walks for me. Jake Marlowe may be a soulful anti-hero, but he really is a wolf in wolf’s clothing, nature red in tooth and claw.

Open Book: I read the digital galley of Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf (Knopf) through NetGalley. To quote Duncan, a howl of appreciation to all involved.

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Late summer 1935. On board a train barreling through the north Florida wilderness, World War I vet Arlen looks into the eyes of his fellow Conservation Corps workers and sees swirling smoke, a sure sign of impending death. But he can only convince his young friend Paul that his premonition is the real thing, and so the two, to the jeers of the others, stay behind at a remote station. The train continues to the Florida Keys – and straight into the path of the infamous Labor Day hurricane that killed thousands.

By the time Arlen and Paul hear the dreadful news, they’ve taken refuge at an isolated boarding house run by the beautiful and secretive Rebecca Cady. But the storm is not the only threat at Cypress House. A powerful  judge and a conniving sheriff are intent on making their stay a short one with the help of a murderous swamp rat family. Neither Arlen nor Paul want to leave Rebecca alone, especially after a traveling salesman is incinerated in his car and Arlen, a coffinmaker’s son, again sees skeletal hands beneath live flesh.

Michael Koryta expertly mixes backwoods Depression-era adventure and betrayal with a tinge of the supernatural in The Cypress House (Little, Brown), which is even better than last year’s So Cold the River. It’s as if Peter Matthiessen’s Mister Watson met Stephen King in the swampy, fetid frontier of corruption and poked a nest of water moccasins. Florida noir. Intense and atmospheric, the novel has the momentum of that doomed train as its characters try to outwit fate. Smoke gets in their eyes.

Open Book: I downloaded a digital advance copy of Michael Koryta’s The Cypress House (Little, Brown) through NetGalley. The digital galleys expire into the ether after a certain period of time.

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The appealing punk genius hacker Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) literally clawed her way out of a grave in the second book in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Played with Fire. Now, Salander, under arrest as a serial killer, clings to life with a bullet in her brain in the opening pages of the final thrilling entry, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. But not to worry. Once she comes round from brain surgery and realizes her greatest enemy — her father — is two doors down in ICU, she drags her broken body out of bed and arms herself with a pencil. She may be down, but she’s not out — except for vengeance.

Meanwhile, investigative reporter/magazine publisher Mikael Blomkvist is out to convince law enforcement and the world that Salander is not guilty of the so-called “Lesbian Satanist murders,” and, indeed, is the victim of a complicated conspiracy involving her Soviet spy father, a maverick unit of the Swedish Security Services, a German killer with ties to outlaw bikers, and assorted psychiatrists and bureaucrats who want her either stashed back in a mental hospital or dead.

You really have to have read the first two books. Larsson, the activist Swedish journalist who died suddenly of a heart attack at age 50 in 2004, could have easily tripped over any one of the many complicated plotlines that make the series such a spider web. But he is a deft storyteller, and if Dragon dragged some and Fire was a bit frenetic, he almost perfectly paces Hornet. There is some narrative repetition as Salander’s past is replayed and the villains’ roles exposed. And Larsson piles on more story: Blomkvist’s mistress takes over as editor of a rival newspaper and his sister takes on Salander’s courtroom defense. Still, it’s hard to put down as it reaches its fierce finale.

Bittersweet, though, to bid farewell to Larsson and his compelling characters. I suppose Google could tell me the Swedish for goodbye, but I’ll stick to English: Thanks for the memories.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Stieg Larrson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Knopf) and stayed up way too late last night to finish it.

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I knew the thunderstorm was on its way last night, not only because of the pillowing dark clouds in the distance but also because of the sharp smell of ozone and damp earth carried on the wind. Nancy Pickard  aptly titles her atmospheric new mystery, The Scent of Rain and Lightning, as she brews a family drama on the Kansas plains.

It was on one stormy summer night in 1986, with the rain coming down in torrents, that Hugh-Jay Linder, eldest son of a prominent ranching family in small-town Rose, was shot dead in his house, and his pretty wife Laurie disappeared. The only good things to come out of that night were the survival of  three-year-old Jody, out at the ranch with her grandparents, and the quick arrest and conviction of local malcontent Billy Crosby. But now, just as grown-up Jody has returned to Rose to teach high school, word comes from her three uncles that Crosby’s getting out of prison and returning to Rose as well. His lawyer son Collin has convinced the governor that Billy was railroaded and should get a new trial.

Cue thunder, lightning, anger, fear. Pickard skillfully moves back and forth from that first summer to the present. If Billy Crosby is truly innocent, who shot good-hearted Hugh-Jay and made off with Laurie? Her body has never been found, only a bloodied sundress in an abandoned pick-up. As Jody searches for the truth, she (and readers) gradually become aware of several dark secrets in the Linder family’s past.

Pickard creates credible. complex characters, and the plot propels the action forward. Wary readers will spot the villain of the piece (too many red herrings for my taste) but the resolution rings true. Pickard also uses one of Kansas’ most striking geographic features — the towering Monument Rocks created by ice-age glaciers — to excellent effect. She calls them the Testament Rocks and moves them to a fictional but fully authentic location.

If The Scent of Rain and Lightning has the impact of a summer storm, then Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places comes on like a winter blizzard, chilling to the bone. Another gripping tale of  murder in Kansas, with overtones of  Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it came out last year and is now available in paperback.

Narrator Libby Day was seven when she crawled out of a window of a rundown farmhouse and hid in the woods, thus becoming the sole survivor of “The Satanic Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas.” Little Libby’s testimony helped send her fifteen-year-old brother Ben to prison for the bloody murders of her mother and two older sisters in the mid-1980s. Now, a quarter century later, Libby’s an emotionally stunted and bitter woman in her early 30s wondering how she’s going to get by now that the financial kindness of strangers has finally run out.

Enter some new strangers — the very strange members of the Murder Club, who are obssessed with famous crimes. They’ll pay Libby to get in touch with people from her past — her no-good father Runner, her long-estranged aunt Diane, even Ben in prison, and his supposedly devil-worshiping, dope-smoking friends from long ago if she can find them.

Flynn’s compelling story shifts easily from Libby’s present to the events leading up to the murders told from various family members’ perspectives. But her take-no-prisoners, unflinching narrative can be as hard to read as it is to put down. Failing farms, boarded-up storefronts, seamy strip clubs, a homeless camp on a toxic waste dump, abandoned grain silos.  

Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, featured a character scarred by cutting. She slices even deeper in Dark Places. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Open Book: I bought my copies of Nancy Pickard’s The Scent of Rain and Lightning (Random House) and Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places (Crown).

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