Tag Archives: Thrillers

The Devil’s Punchbowl

The final book in the Penn Cage series before Greg Iles takes it into the Natchez Burning series (though technically still Penn Cage, it’s weird, a series within a series), I was ready pretty early on in the book to get it over with and revisit the second half of the series to see if I’ve changed a lot since I read them several years ago or if they really are significantly better than the early books (I’m guessing the latter).

The Devil’s Punchbowl finds Penn Cage running the city of Natchez, but in his two years as mayor, Cage has already become disenchanted with his grand plan to raise the town above all that it’s become. When an old friend from grade school requests a clandestine meeting with Cage and passes on sickening information about activities going on in the town, Cage can’t ignore it. When his friend ends up dead, Cage makes it a personal campaign to catch the bad guys–even if it means getting tangled up with a federal sting operation.

While better than Turning Angel, I didn’t enjoy The Devil’s Punchbowl as much as I’ve enjoyed other books that Iles has written. This one also was pretty gratuitous with sexual content (though I will say that, as it deals with the underworld, it’s at least a little more fitting to the context, even if it’s not enjoyable to read) and at times very graphic. This book definitely needs trigger warnings for rape/sexual abuse and graphic violence, specifically against animals.

The Devil’s Punchbowl is fast-paced, as Iles books always are, but once again it fell flat of my expectations. What has drawn me to Iles’ works are the stories of intrigue mixed with politics and the courtroom. While Iles proves himself a master of thrillers in many sub-genres, turns out not all of them are up my alley. Which is OK, a thriller writer needs the ability to branch out or else risk becoming predictable.

This book is well-written but quite intense with the content it deals with, and not everyone will be able (or willing) to tolerate the detail Iles goes into, nor the plot twists he uses to move the story forward. I don’t want to say it’s inappropriate for people of delicate sensibilities, but I can’t think of a better way to phrase it. The first three books of the Penn Cage series require some thought before diving in.

Behind Her Eyes

The best kinds of thrillers are the ones that play with your mind, and Sarah Pinborough definitely does that with Behind Her Eyes.

LouDSC00835ise is a single mom working part-time at a psychologist office when she discovers that the man she hit it off with in the bar is the new doctor–and he’s married. Louise determines to put it behind her and not give it another thought, but then David’s wife, Adele, bumps into Louise and wants to be friends. Instead of running as fast as she can, Louise lets herself get drawn deeper and deeper into the middle of David and Adele’s marriage, obsessed with uncovering the truth, because it’s very clear one or both of them have some secrets. And besides, Adele is helping Louise learn about lucid dreaming, the only solution to Louise’s night terrors.

But Louise could never imagine the truth at the core of David and Adele’s relationship, no one possibly could. Louise doesn’t realize the danger until it’s too late, and now everyone she loves could suffer for it.

I have mixed feelings about this book. First, the amount of profanity in the book was unpleasant. It wasn’t even the kind of book that it felt reasonable. It made the characters just seem course and unrefined. But then, none of the characters were the kind I could relate to anyway. It’s the kind of book you read to watch the train wreck drama unfold, not because you identify with the characters (I hope, anyway).

That said, the writing was good and Pinborough moved the story on at a quick pace. I wasn’t certain about the time jumps in the beginning, I think it’s a technique that should be used sparingly, but I think it worked to a degree in this story. My main issue with the book was that it didn’t seem like the ending was thoroughly teased throughout the book. I don’t mind if I miss all the clues, but I should be able to recall the hints woven through the book. The final twist seemed really out of the blue, blindsided me, actually. Had the book left out the final two chapters, I would have been more satisfied, and it still would have had a solid twist.

But the theme of lucid dreaming throughout the book took the story to a new level, playing a little bit with the mind, in the sense that you’re not quite sure where it leads but it’s definitely going somewhere.

All in all, it was a good book, but too many pieces were not my taste. The profanity and the condoning of affairs were major turn-offs, and I wasn’t able to really get into the rest of the story and forget about them.

Don’t You Cry

If you ever get the chance to snag a Mary Kubica book, do it. Her thrillers are uniquely written, each storyline leading to a logical conclusion that you didn’t quite see coming.

In Don’t You Cry, Quinn Collins is getting nervous, because her roommate Esther Vaughn disappeared without a trace. Becoming increasingly more frantic, Quinn searches Esther’s stuff for clues, and finds cryptic, creepy letters addressed to “My Dearest,” and signed “EV.” Quinn starts to wonder if Esther is really the person she thought.

Meanwhile, a few hours away, Alex Gallo sees a mysterious woman show up in the diner he works at. Inexplicably drawn to her, Alex is desperate to know more about her, to know her secrets. But the truth is more sinister than he could have imagined.

Though a little slow to start (or maybe it’s just because my mind has been obsessed with other things lately), Don’t You Cry May actually be my favorite of the three Kubica books I’ve read. Written in first person, it’s easy to get sucked into Quinn’s panic and confusion, and easy to feel sympathy and understanding with Alex and his sudden crush.

Don’t You Cry is a new twist on a domestic thriller, and it leads you in several directions before all the clues fall into place, pointing to the logical conclusion.

True Evil

One of the things I enjoy about Greg Iles is that, even with standalone books, they are still interrelated, with characters from one book or series making appearances in others.

When FBI agent Alex Morse’s Sister dies, Morse is left with a charge: to save her nephew. Morse’s sister believes she was murdered. After some digging, Morse discovers what she believes is a pattern, but the hard part is proving it. Morse has a cluster of cases of suspicious deaths in Natchez, and the one common factor is a local divorce attorney who was contacted by the spouses– including Morse’s brother-in-law.

Now Morse has a new lead, because the attorney has a new client. Morse needs to convince Dr Chris Shepard that he’s in danger from his wife, and that she really has a case to pursue. But time is running out, and Morse stands to lose everything.

True Evil was a fast-paced story, kind of unique in it’s style. It sounds like an outlandish conspiracy at first, but Iles goes into the science and creates a scheme so his villains can commit the perfect crime.

My only frustration with the book is the addition of gratuitous sex scenes that really don’t make a difference to the storyline, nor add any depth to the character.

Otherwise, Iles proves himself as a quality thriller writer, creating relatable characters and intriguing situations that keep you interested right until the end.

The Better Sister

With a title like that, how can anyone not be intrigued?

I first heard of Alafair Burke when I saw she’d written a joint book with Mary Higgins Clark, before branching out into her own career. The Better Sister is her second novel.

Chloe Taylor has a successful, albeit strange, life. She runs a successful magazine, is well-known in her industry, and has a loving husband and son– her sister’s ex-husband and nephew.

But when her husband is murdered, everything starts to fall apart and Ethan, Chloe’s stepson and nephew, is charged with the murder. Chloe’s finds she must partner with Nicky, her estranged sister, to try to uncover the truth about Adam’s murder and prove Ethan’s innocent.

The Better Sister was a page turner, and a nice break from what has become the common theme of unreliable women and/or sexual violence as the basis of the plot.

My one quibble was that the twist in the end, while I made sense, didn’t have the lead up. Burke suggested various different, plausible possibilities, but didn’t really hint at the truth.

Otherwise, Burke wrote a clear, fast-paced thriller. I’m interested to go back and read some of her earlier work, because based on this book, she is capable of coming up with interesting, unique stories.

The Child Finder

I’ve seen Rene Denfeld’s book around a lot, but never really looked into it until a coworker loaned me her copy. Let me just say, it’s an intense read and could be very triggering for anyone who has faced sexual abuse or abduction.

The Child Finder is the first in a series about Naomi, a PI who was herself a missing child. She remembers nothing of her life until, at 8 years old, she stumbles into the camp of some migrant workers who take her to a sheriff they trust a half a day’s drive away. Now, Naomi is dedicated to finding other missing children.

She takes on the case of Madison Culver, missing three years. Naomi is the last hope, though after that long, hope is a single thread. Naomi sets herself to the case with single-minded attention, hoping to find something that the local law enforcement and search parties missed. Something that suggests Madison is still alive, but anything that will give the family closure. During the course of her investigation, Naomi finds more than she bargained for, uncovering the hurts of the past, hers and others’.

The story is written in unique style that at first glance seemed like it would be annoying, but quickly resolved itself into a good stylistic choice. The chapters flow from Naomi’s current perspective to flashbacks from her childhood in a foster home, interspersed with narrative from an imaginative child, whom we quickly learn is using her imagination to deal with the trauma of her situation. You might have a chapter that flows through all three narrative styles with little more than a paragraph break to clue you in, but the slightly jagged style fits well with the story.

I’ll confess, I am growing tired of the trend that all thrillers have to have a premise in sexual abuse. This one especially concerned me when I started in, seeing as how it dealt with children. But Denfeld isn’t explicit, instead briefly visiting those moments from an innocent child’s eyes, someone who wouldn’t have words to vividly describe what happened. I would have preferred almost any other premise, though.

My only other quarrel with the book was a red herring trail in the second half of the book, when you know what’s going on and where Naomi needs to go, but, despite the evidence that seems glaring to us, the omniscient readers, Naomi goes in a different direction. This little jaunt of the story added words, sure, but didn’t add much else to the story.

While definitely an interesting story, and well written, this is definitely a book I have to be careful with recommending. It’s a sensitive subject and definitely is not a book that appeals to all readers.

An Anonymous Girl

How far can you go before discovering the truth becomes unethical?

This seems to be a question Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen touch on in their latest book, An Anonymous Girl.

A spur of the moment decision leads Jessica down an unexpected path. She lies to participate in a study on ethics and morality because she needs the money they are offering. Her honesty intrigues the psychologist, and suddenly Jessica is the teacher’s pet, and the project morphs into something more.

But Jessica slowly begins to realize that Dr. Lydia Shields hasn’t been completely honest about the purpose of her study, and it’s becoming more and more dangerous for Jessica to see a way out. Shields is obsessed with discovering some truth, but Jessica isn’t sure she likes being the instrument of temptation. As she begins to learn the truth of her own situation, Jessica scrambles to find a way to escape the web with her life still intact.

Hendricks and Pekkanen are another author (set, really) that I’ve heard a lot of but never read (I know, I know, you readers probably get tired of hearing this time and time again), but I wasn’t disappointed. An Anonymous Girl did an excellent job of leading you in one direction and dropping clues that hint toward something different.

It’s a quick read that bounces between points of view in short, snappy chapters. I also liked that the authors had a couple layers within the story, but not so many as to be distracting, and all the layers neatly lined up in the end, good for people who like neat and tidy endings.

After reading this, and knowing how many people came in to Barnes and Noble for their first book, I’ll definitely be recommending An Anonymous Girl when it hits shelves in January. And until then, I’ll fill my time with checking out The Wife Between Us.


Watching You

You’d never know it, because I write these in advance, but I started this book in the middle of November, and I hadn’t read a book in two or three weeks. That’s a long time for me. I just couldn’t get into the other book I was trying. I finally gave it up and turned to my reliable advanced readers.

I’ve seen Lisa Jewell’s books around a lot, and I knew she did some suspense/thrillers, but now I’ve finally had a chance to read her when I snagged an advanced copy of her latest book.

In Watching You, Jewell weaves together the stories of several people, none of whom you know who to believe.

Joey Mullen and her new husband have recently moved in with her brother and his pregnant wife and are adjusting to life in a ritzier neighborhood. But Joey’s never had her life together, and even though she’s got a job, a husband, and a place to live, she’s still being tempted by the wrong choices.

When murder comes to their quiet little village, no one is sure who to suspect: Joey, who a witness places near the scene, the neighbor boy who spies on everyone, but especially women and high school girls, or the neighbor woman who displays hints of mental illness. Everyone’s got motive and secrets, but the police are going to find the truth.

Jewell’s book is written mostly as the weeks/months leading up to the crime. Interspersed are transcriptions of police interviews with various characters. Jewell never reveals who the victim was until the end, which aids her in keeping readers guessing about the perpetrator as well. While the book was a fast read, I’m not completely sure that the twists had enough hints throughout the story. Plenty of thrillers simply throw a curve ball at the end as a way to catch readers off guard, but a good book will have just enough clues that, once you know the answer, they seem obvious, even though they were obscure during the reading. Jewell planted some, but I think it could have used more, instead of focusing so much on Joey and her poor choices.

That said, Joey’s poor choices were a crucial part of the story, setting up the motive. Joey finds herself enamored with the head of the local school, despite both of them being married. But the Joey isn’t the only one enamored with him, and he’s got secrets to hide, just like the rest of the neighborhood.

Overall, despite how creepy I found several aspects of Jewell’s characters, I did enjoy her book (enough to start in on one of her others). I’m interested to see how her other thrillers hold up. And when you’re considering how to spend your Christmas money, put Watching You on your list, it’ll be available December 26th.

A Stranger in the House

If I said the book I read in just a few days was hard to get in to, would anyone believe me?

Either way, it’s true. I read Shari Lapena’s book in just a couple days, but I could have read it faster, if it really gripped me. By that I mean, if I’d felt inclined to read a few chapters on my breaks and lunch at work. But I really didn’t.

Karen Krupp is an average housewife, but her life begins to unravel after she’s in a car accident due to recklessly driving in a bad part of town. When police find out a murder occurred around the same time as Karen’s flight and accident, even her stalwart husband can’t help but be suspicious–especially since Karen can’t remember anything about that night.

It seems everyone is working an angle, and no one grasps the full scope of the situation. But when the dust settles and life tries to return to normal, it’s going to be built on top of even more secrets and lies than before.

While the book was good, the first half seemed almost to be gratuitous scene setting and character establishment (which, spoiler, gets totally trashed in the end). It was a slow start. And it didn’t help hat the book is written in present tense. I’ve grown to be able to handle first person, but third person present tense is still too much for me.

But in the second half of the book, Lapena really starts throwing in plot twists, and they fit in seamlessly with the story. You end up asking yourself why you didn’t think of that before. It’s great, right up to the final twist that, personally, felt too much like a complete 180, with no warning. It’s easy to surprise readers when there’s no indication or expectation of a change.

Will I return to Lapena’s books? Maybe. They just won’t be at the top of my reading list (and really, does my list even have a top? It feels more like an eternal middle). But, she’ll be a good one to recommend to people who enjoy the thrillers. Because she is good, just maybe not everyone’s cup of tea.

Under my Skin

While I’m growing a little tired of thrillers focused on women with unreliable narrative, Lisa Unger’s upcoming book, Under My Skin, was just enough different to be enjoyable.

It’s been a year since Poppy’s husband Jack was murdered during an early morning run, and Poppy is still drowning in grief. The case was never solved, and despite therapy, Poppy is missing memories from the days immediately surrounding the murder.

Using a mixture of alcohol and prescription drugs to cope, Poppy quickly loses the ability to differentiate between what’s real and what are dreams. But Poppy is convinced that clues to her husband’s death are hidden in her missing memories, and she’s determined to find out what she knows, even if she won’t like the answers.

Unger writes this story to be fast-paced, and to keep readers guessing, trying, along side Poppy, to recognize what is real in the story, and which pieces are dreams. Frankly, it can be a little challenging to keep track (which I think is the point), so if you’re someone who is obsessive about clear lines, this book may be hard. Additionally, if you have trauma of losing someone you love, this book might be hard too. I definitely held my husband a little tighter after reading it.

While everything seems pretty clear on the surface, we learn fairly quickly that our characters aren’t all what they seem, yet another layer of trying to determine with Poppy, is she a bad judge of character? Who’s side of the story is unjustly biased? And just how much can people change?

What makes this book a little different than some of the others that I’ve read is that Poppy comes out in the end as a strong character who doesn’t let other people tell her what is going on inside her own head. Sure, she questions, and recognizes her bad decisions, but she works through it all on her own, instead of believing those who love her, only to find out they were wrong or misguided. In her fragile state, Poppy hangs on to herself, instead of allowing those around her to remake her into someone else. And I like that about her.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, even if it did make my heart hurt to read it. And if you’re waiting breathlessly for your next thriller, you’ll have to wait until October, for this one to hit shelves. But it’s worth it.