Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

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As he’s speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like balloons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small explosions…

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.

The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.

The tension is real from the very first chapter. It is the kind of tension I key right into. What was that sound? What if I arrive at the gate too late, and the park is closed locking me within? Worse, what if something endangers my son?

The quiet man and the loud man are in the zoo,  hunting. People have fallen in various positions all around the entrance, and more are in hiding, particularly Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln.

She has her cell phone, from which she has informed her husband that  she is hiding with their son in the empty porcupine cage. She is behind a huge rock, telling her son to be quiet while she holds him tightly against herself, and the tension is palatable. I feel that I am her, hiding, hoping desperately that I will not be found.

I am her, holding my son, who when he was four asked the same kind of existential questions Lincoln asks. “What do strangers look like?” my son once asked me. “How can bad people be happy?” Lincoln asks his mother when he hears the men with guns laugh.

When Joan leaves her hiding place with her four year old, because he is hungry and she wants to find him something to eat, I want to scream, “Don’t leave! You have been safe where you are.” But they venture forth, finding a living colobus monkey standing over a fallen one, a dead elephant which at first appears to be an “ink-stain shape on the ground.”

This novel is mesmerizing and terrifying on several counts. For once, it’s not the gone girl, or the disappearing woman, or a girl on a train.  It’s a mother, in a situation which feels entirely possible in today’s world. It’s a mother and a son and evil, twisted men that are scarier than a clown holding some balloons could ever be.

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Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world by Jorge Zepeda Patterson (a thriller for Spanish Lit Month)

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Milena isn’t Russian, as supposed, and she didn’t come to Mexico of her own free will. She was captured as a teen in Croatia by a human-trafficking ring and forced into prostitution.

When the novel opens, her benefactor has just died in her arms. He is the owner of El Mundo, and has prepared for such an event by writing a letter which instructs his daughter to protect his love, Milena, and to take the black book away from her because it could ruin the family.

What black book? How could it destroy the family? The secrets are many and multi-layered in this Spanish thriller which won the  Premio Planeta. (A literary prize of $800,000.)

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world was sent to me by Restless Books. I read it for Spanish Lit Month with an ache in my heart for the women who suffer in this trade, and the men who are oblivious to their suffering.

The next day, each of them (the men who came to the prostitutes) went on with his normal life, beyond the boundary of that hell they financed, thinking they had integrity and that paying a stack of euros got them off the hook for any wrongdoing.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson does a brilliant job of portraying the darkest aspects of prostitution and its inherent evil; of men taking advantage of anyone they can to gain power. He shows us the inner workings of the mafias engaged in human-trafficking and the groups laundering money for organized crime.

A far cry from Javier Marias’ gentle, even enigmatic prose, reading this novel is like watching a film. One that carries scenes all the more horrifying because they can be found in real life. It is a shocking book, and violent, incredibly fast paced and an exceptional thriller for those who enjoy this genre.

The Switch by Joseph Finder (“Surveillance is civility. You got nothin’ to hide, you got nothin’ to fear.”)

IMG_4158I might have had trouble with the idea that an important political figure would leave her password on a Post-it note stuck to the outside of her laptop if I hadn’t watched Hillary mishandle her cell phone for over a year. But knowing of the idiotic things that senators (and such) can do with their technology, the premise of The Switch becomes not only fascinating, but credible.

While going through airport security in Los Angeles, Senator Susan Robbins’ laptop is accidentally picked up by Michael Tanner. It isn’t until he gets home to Boston that he discovers the error and realizes their computers have been switched. Then he sees the Post-it at the bottom of the laptop with the password. The more he tries to find out whose computer he has, the more he realizes that he is in possession of top secret files which the Senator and her aide will do anything to retrieve.

A series of ensuing incidents can only be interpreted as threats. There is an ever encroaching danger on Michael Tanner’s life which is only preserved because he is in possession of the MacBook Air which Robbins’ staff cannot find. His reporter friend has been presumed to have committed suicide; he gets a call that his coffee roasting company has suddenly caught fire in the middle of the night.

As he danger increases, so does an understanding of the underlying premises in this novel. Are we a society so caught up in technology that it has power over us rather than the other way around?

Worse still, is it possible for America to become  “a surveillance state, (and) eventually a dictatorship”?

“Forget privacy; what we all really want is convenience. We write private emails that our employer has the legal right to read, am I right? Every time you use your SpeedPass in the turnpike or swipe your debit card at Walmart or buy your meds at CVS, you’re being tracked. You got OnStar in your car, Waze  on your phone? You know they track where you went and how fast to got there, and they can sell your data to anyone they want? And if you don’t know all this, you’re not as smart as I thought. You really think you got privacy anymore? Every time you walk down the streets of the city your picture’s being taken by a surveillance camera. There’s automatic license-plate readers all over the place. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched online. We live our lives in public all the time, like it or not.”

This is an extremely satisfying thriller, well written and thought-provoking, making me question on this Independence Day just how independent we really are. Even in America.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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“With FindTheOne.com there are no blind-date nerves, there’s no stilted conversations over dinner. I’d argue it’s more honest than most online dating sites, with their airbrushed photos and their profiles full of lies. Salary range, hobbies, favorite foods…all irrelevant. Who builds a relationship on a mutual love of tapas? A match might be perfect on paper, yet lack the spark needed to set it alight.

FindTheOne.com cuts through all that rubbish; the pretense that anyone cares if you like opera or walks in the park. It means men can take their time. They can follow you for a while, engage you in conversation; see if you’re interesting enough to take for dinner, instead of wasting their time on a garrulous airhead. It means men can get up close and personal. Smell your perfume; your breath; your skin. Feel a spark. Act on it.”

I must admit to the guilty pleasure of reading a thriller. I like to read them scattered between translated or classical literature, simply for the ride. But, I don’t like all thrillers. I didn’t like Gone Girl, for example, and I wasn’t particularly taken with The Girl on The Train. However, I See You kept me engaged all afternoon.

It is based on the premise that a web site sells the details of women’s commutes to work, from which Tube line they take, to the carriage in which they sit, to the exit they use in heading for home. When Zoe discovers a connection between an advertisement on the Gazette and subsequent murders of the women pictured on each advert, the tension rises palatably until its surprising crescendo.

Try as I might, I could not guess the perpetrator. But, Clare Mackintosh does not forcibly manipulate either her reader, or the clues, into a neat little package. The resolution makes perfect sense and has been drawn carefully from the first chapter if one is mindful enough to see it.

If the reader will remember that it is not just the site, nor those who are drawn to it, but the mastermind behind it all. The mind that causes Zoe, and now me, to carefully observe her surroundings to see if anyone follows her with malicious intent.

 

Other reviews:

“Mackintosh scripts a hair-raising ride all the scarier because its premise—that our predictable routines make us easy targets—is sadly so plausible.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[T]he steadily thickening paranoia will leave readers questioning their comfortable routines…a well-crafted blend of calculated malevolence, cunning plot twists, and redemption that will appeal to fans of Sophie Hannah, Ruth Rendell, and Ruth Ware.” —Booklist, starred review

Packed with suspense, twists, and turns…[Mackintosh’s] meticulous detail to investigative accuracy and talent in weaving a thrilling tale set her work apart from others in the field.” —Kirkus

(I See You by Clare Mackintosh will be published on February 21, 2017. Thanks to Penguin for the Advanced Reading Copy.)

The Trespasser by Tana French

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It starts slowly, and continues that way, almost painfully so. But then, as only Tana French knows how to do, you are suddenly caught up into dialogue and characterization that is so compelling you must continue to the end.

Is beautiful, Barbie-like Aislinn killed by a random stalker? By her date, Rory, for whom she is preparing dinner? Or, by a detective from within the police force itself? What matters, perhaps, is not who committed the murder as much as how we get there.

I am caught up in the thought process of Antoinette Conway and Steve Moran, sweating it out in the interrogation room, feeling Antoinette’s isolation and insecurity not quite covered up by the bravado with which she likes to cloak herself.  I search my life for the likes of Steve, her trusted partner and dependable colleague, and find that I, too, am not entirely alone even when I feel that way acutely.

I like the power of Tana French’s novels; they are never contrived, or trite, but look beyond the mystery to the core of each character. Who seem so very real to me.

 

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry

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I’ve been on a mad tear of devouring thrillers lately. They are my “go to” genre when I become distraught, which I am a wee bit right now. Facing the start of a new school year amid typical August heat in Illinois is only one of the things on my horizon. So, instead of reading more thoroughly for Paris in July, or Spanish Lit  Month as I have in prior years, I am buried in psychological thrillers which do not disappoint.

Under The Harrow by Flynn Berry is fantastic. It has the enigma I crave, along with the quality of writing I adore. One is not sacrificed for the other as so often happens in this genre.

When Nora arrives at her sister Rachel’s, expecting polenta and coq au vin, she finds instead the dog hanging from the banister on his tangled up lead and bloody handprints on the wall. Her sister has been stabbed numerous times and is lying dead upstairs in blackened blood. We come to find out that she had been attacked several years earlier on the way home from a party, and subsequently wonder if the two incidents are related.

But there are several other threads which cause dismay. One is the absence of their father whom they haven’t seen, nor does it appear that Nora wishes to see him, in a long time.

Our dad has not turned up. As far as I know, the police have not found him yet, but this is the funeral of his eldest daughter. He might learn of it somehow. He might limp up the aisle and settle in next to me and start to offer theories. The church doors are shut now, and I wonder if anyone would mind if I locked them.

And, there is the presence of Stephan, an old boyfriend whom Rachel did not seem to wish to marry.

Stephan has arrived, I realize with a shot of terror. He comes up and kisses me on the cheek. He smells of whiskey and from this morning, not last night…

They almost got married. Close brush, she said. He still wanted to.

I am only halfway through; this book will keep me pleasantly occupied tonight. I just had to tell you how much I’m enjoying it, how it appears to be one of the best thrillers I’ve read in years. Seriously.

No wonder it has been named one of the best books of summer by Elle, Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Good Housekeeping, Real Simple, The Huffington Post and more. Even Claire Messud said, “Once I started reading Under The Harrow, I couldn’t stop. It’s like Broadchurch written by Elena Ferrante.”

The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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The praise for this one is incomparable. Endorsements from the likes of thriller writers Harlan Coban and Sue Grafton made me all the more eager to review The Couple Next Door.

Anne and Marco are young parents having a dinner party with their neighbors, Cynthia and Graham, while taking turns to check on their baby next door every half hour. When Anne feeds her daughter at 12:00 a.m. everything is fine; when Marco checks her at 12:30 a.m. everything is fine. But when they return home at 1:00 in the morning, to find their front door ajar about three inches, they also discover their baby, Cora, is gone.

Immediately, Anne castigates herself. They never should have left the baby alone when the sitter cancelled. Soon, it becomes apparent that a kidnapping has taken place. Or, is Anne implicated because she suffers from post-partum depression and is under the care of a psychiatrist? Each character’s motivations are closely examined in an intricate, well-wrought plot.

The story is a compelling one, the twists are not arbitrary or so sudden they seem artificial. The suspense is substantial as we take our suspicions from one character to the next. There is no doubt at the end, as there can be with translated literature, as to who committed the crime or why. All of these reasons make this a good read. It stops from being a great read, for me, because the sentences are jerky and flat, thrust at us like little jabs from some fencing dual. There are cliches we have heard all too often before.  But, if you want a suspenseful read, with a well drawn plot, this would be the book to pick up.

The Couple Next Door will be published August 23, 2016. Surely it is worth being compared to Gone Girl, and The Girl on The Train, except that I liked this one better than either of those.

“Privacy is the Last Thing We Have.” I Am No One by Patrick Flanery

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Each word I put on paper I imagine may be the last I write in freedom.

I came across this quote a mere 22 pages into I Am No One, and immediately found myself identifiying with Jeremy O’Keefe, the History professor who said it. How often I have wondered if our freedom of speech will someday be taken away, as the world that I have known and trusted slowly turns upside down.

Jeremy is now teaching at NYU, after leaving Columbia and then Oxford. His life is in shambles, and throughout this book which is a testament he seems to be recording, we are never quite convinced of his sanity. Is he telling the truth, or is he paranoid? Could it be he is somehow being manipulated?

The novel begins with a missed appointment he thinks he has made with one of his students. She doesn’t appear, and when he arrives home to check his email he finds a note cancelling their meeting which he does not remember writing. While he was waiting for her at the cafe, he exchanges a few brief words with a young man who keeps appearing, apparently coincidentally, in Jeremy’s life.

Things worsen when unmarked cardboard boxes appear, addressed to him with no indication of who sent them, yet they contain hundreds of pages of private information: every URL he has ever visited, every phone number he has called, and files of photographs of his life.

To me, this is the most fascinating part of the novel. Do we know how visible we are in our every movement? Do we know who it is that is watching is, or worse, keeping track of our private lives?

To be human is to be watched, to be part of society, because we are social animals, but we do not expect that observation by community or government will extend into our private lives. Those of us who are rational believe that as long as we are not breaking any laws, there is no reason the government should be watching what we do inside our homes, within the confines of our private property, and yet this apparently rational belief has been demonstrated, time and again, by behavior of law enforcement and intelligence services, to be profoundly false.

I Am No One is a literary thriller with immediate implications to the lives we live today. Privacy, past relationships, technology and terror are all brought into sharp focus as Patrick Flanery examines their interplay with this book. It is a job well done, a thoroughly fascinating read, making me wonder if any of us have the courage  to make our private lives visible. Should we be required to do so.

The Widow by Fiona Barton

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By the middle of the book, you’re satisfactorily muddled as to who is telling the truth: Jeanie Taylor or her husband, Glen? He is a little like the male character in Sleeping with the Enemy, a perfectionist in the extreme. But that does not necessarily mean that he is guilty of kidnapping Bella, a toddler who was playing in a nearby garden and disappeared while her mother was briefly occupied within their home.

Perhaps it is Jean who kidnapped the child. Even though she is meek, and almost childlike herself, she so longs for a baby of her own that it’s conceivable she could carry off someone else’s. As the journalist who interviews her says:

She’s smarter than she makes out. Puts on her little house wifely act – you know, standing by her man – but there’s all sorts going on in her head. Difficult for her because I think she believed he was innocent at one stage, but something changed. Something changed in their relationship.

There is a slow revelation of each character’s personality and the dynamics they have with one another. I like not knowing who to believe, husband or wife. I like wondering how it will all turn out.

But, this is such a tragic book to me. To me, psychological thrillers are a fascinating genre, but not when they include small children in the plot. The Widow turned from being a compelling book about a couple’s marriage dynamics to a horror story that I could barely finish.

That, however, is just my opinion. I passed The Widow to the teacher who works with talented and gifted children in our school, only to find out that she liked it better than Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train. When I asked her why, she said it was because she didn’t feel manipulated, and that is certainly a valid point. No one likes to feel that the author has jerked them through a myriad of events just to create a plot that is suspenseful. With that I can agree; Fiona Barton writes her story without any arbitrary twists that end up being more annoying than convincing. And, she leaves us with plenty to think about after its conclusion.

 

The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison

I like the setting in Chicago with all it’s familiar places such as the Loop, Navy Pier, Printers Row,  and the Drake Hotel.
I like the backdrop of psychology not only in the heroine’s profession, but also in the exploration of Adler’s three life goals. “That Adler’s school is pragmatic and socially atuned is nowhere quite so evident as in his three main life tasks, which he identified as hallmarks of mental health: 1) the experience and expression of love, 2) the development of friendships and social ties, and 3) engagement in meaningful work.” (p. 130)
I like the way the reader is a casual, but engaged, observer. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl felt like it was constantly playing tricks on me for the sake of keeping me guessing. A. S. A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife has a crescendo slowly building to a completely unexpected, but believable, conclusion.
I like reading about strong women and seeing how they’ve coped with life’s adversities. Even if it is in a way I wouldn’t choose for myself.
I first heard of The Silent Wife when I read about it on Nadia’s blog, A Bookish Way of Life. Our reading likes are so compatible, and this book which came highly recommended by her is no exception. Read it for a thriller, read it for its multi-layered plot, and read it to see all the ways in which this wife is silent.