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Three Cinematic Novels to Get You through the Drought at the Multiplex

Cover art for Loving Day by Mat JohnsonCover art for Last Words by Michael KorytaCover art for A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul TremblayThe days of summer are dwindling down, and all of the blockbuster movies we were waiting to see have long been released. What’s a cinephile to do when there’s not much left worth seeing in the month of August? Here are three entertaining novels that fall into typical movie genres to help you get through the rest of summer.

 

Looking for an edgy intergenerational dramedy? Pick up Mat Johnson’s Loving Day. Warren Duffy has returned to the Philadelphia ghetto to claim the dilapidated roofless “mansion” left to him by his recently deceased Irish American father, his black mother having died years before. Warren’s life can’t possibly get any worse, or so he thinks. He’s a not very good, not very successful comic book artist. He identifies as a black man although he’s so light complexioned he consciously overcompensates in an attempt to fit in. His marriage is over and the comic book shop his wife bankrolled for him has gone belly-up. He owes her some serious money and his only hopes of making some quick cash is drawing for hire at a comic book convention. Imagine Warren’s surprise when one of the convention attendees turns out to be the teenage daughter he never knew he had. Tal is more than surprised to learn about her racial identity, having been raised by her Jewish grandfather. She chalks up her hair and features to imagined Israeli roots. Johnson’s down-and-out protagonist retains his ironic sense of humor as he is forced to man up and become a father while exploring his own racial identity and helping his daughter to do the same. Potential love interests for both father and daughter make things interesting, especially since they stem from a special charter school at The Mélange Center, dedicated to helping biracial persons “find the sacred balance” between their black and white perspectives. Broadly comic and insightful as it comments on race issues today, Loving Day explores the dynamics of relationships of all kinds.

 

If suspenseful thrillers are your thing, look no further Michael Koryta’s latest. Last Words follows Florida investigator Mark Novak, a man whose wife and colleague at their pro bono legal firm is killed under mysterious circumstances. A year and a half later, a distracted and still distraught Novak is sent by his boss to a snow-covered Indiana small town to look into the unsolved murder of a 17-year-old girl, Sarah Martin. Although the case has been cold for nearly 10 years, it’s still very much on the minds of the residents of Garrison. It seems the main suspect, the eccentric outcast Ridley Barnes, wrote the firm to specifically request Novak’s services. Barnes raison d’etre is the continued exploration of the supercave beneath the town, a cave he believes is almost a living being. Barnes was the one who emerged from that cave with Sara Martin’s body after a search team failed to locate her. But Novak soon finds out that the caver isn’t the only potential suspect, and that the citizens of Garrison are not very happy to see the case revisited. Novak makes a crucial mistake heading into the case — he fails to do any research before he arrives, a decision he regrets almost immediately. Tightly plotted with interesting, well-developed characters and plenty of suspenseful action, both in the past and present, Last Words would make an excellent screen adaptation. Koryta has chosen an interesting backdrop for the potential crime, and he uses the cave and the exploration of its dark, cold, claustrophobic, labyrinthine network to suspenseful potential.

 

For the thrill of a satisfying psychological horror film, it’s hard to top Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts. As the book begins, 20-something Merry is returning to her family’s former Massachusetts home (now fallen to ruin and up for sale) to meet with a bestselling author. Merry has a fascinating story to tell, one that continues to permeate all aspects of her life. Fifteen years earlier, the Barretts were struggling. Their father had been out of work for some time, and they were in danger of losing their house. Teen Marjorie had begun acting strangely. The stories she has always told 8-year-old Merry have taken on a sinister tone, and she delights in upsetting her. Strange things start to happen. Is it mental illness or something supernatural? While their stressed mother takes Marjorie to a therapist, their father opts for visits with a Catholic priest with ties to the media. Soon, the cash-strapped Barretts foolishly agree to allow their situation to become a reality television show, The Possession, as a way to pay the mortgage. Tremblay builds suspense and tension by telling the story through present day Merry, 8-year-old Merry and a snarky horror blogger named Karen who is deconstructing The Possession 15 years later. A Head Full of Ghosts is funny, clever and thoroughly chilling. Tremblay brings in plot elements from many famous horror movies, even as he pays homage to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s famous short story of madness “The Yellow Wallpaper” and Shirley Jackson’s classic gothic chiller We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Could Marjorie have been faking the whole thing, or was she possessed a la The Exorcist?

Paula G.

 
 

In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood

posted by:
August 7, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth WareThe novel In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware is a gripping page-turner guaranteed to become a must-read for the summer. Ten years ago, Leonora stopped going by Lee and became Nora. She left her past behind her, moved to a new location and became a successful and reclusive novelist. Nora soon receives a dubious email inviting her to a bachelorette party somewhere in the English Countryside to celebrate the nuptials of her old college friend, Clare. When the weekend is over, Nora wakes up in a hospital bed, severely bruised, having survived an apparent car crash. Scanning her recent memory, she can’t recall the events that lead her there, and with the arrival of the police, she realizes that something is very wrong. Someone at the party is dead, and Nora cannot be sure that she is not the murderer.

 

In a Dark, Dark Wood is a psychological thriller at its best. Ware keeps the reader as much in the dark as the menacing woods surrounding the house where the action takes place. The atmosphere is tense, taught and slightly disturbing, and the reader will feel an impending sense of dread right along with Nora. As each piece of the story is slowly revealed, the reader will be glued to the pages until the final outcome — great for readers who enjoy domestic suspense. Readers who enjoy this title may also want to try The Pocket Wife by Susan Crawford, Keep Your Friends Close by Paula Daly or Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty.

Doug

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Summer Suspense

Summer Suspense

posted by:
July 23, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Wrong ManCover art for Dark RoomsLooking for the perfect book to take poolside, distract you on the plane or transport you from your backyard lawn chair? Lose yourself in The Wrong Man by Kate White or Lili Anolik’s Dark Rooms, each story filled with suspense and misdirection.

 

In The Wrong Man, Kit Finn just ended a staid relationship and feels like she is treading water. On a buying trip to Florida, the interior designer resolves to shake up her life and chance stepping outside her comfort zone. Chance presents itself as Matt Healey, a hot and handsome fellow New Yorker who arranges to keep this new romance going once they return to the city. But when Kit shows up at Matt’s door for dinner, she finds instead The Wrong Man; it’s the real Matt Healey and he is not the man Kit met in Florida. As Kit tries to figure out this case of misrepresented identity, she’s drawn in to a web of deceit and corporate corruption which just might turn deadly. Author Kate White, who served as editor-in-chief of Cosmopolitan for 14 years, writes a snappy, sexy mystery which keeps the reader guessing till the last pages.

 

Author Lili Anolik is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Her debut novel, Dark Rooms, tells a chilling and somewhat seamy tale. Posh Chandler Academy is an archetypal New England prep school brimming with wealth and privilege. Grace is a graduate of Chandler, her parents on its teaching staff, but she’s dropped out of college and is living at home while she focuses on solving the shooting death of her charismatic younger sister Nica. Nica’s death has unraveled the family — former good girl Grace is popping pills while her father drowns his sorrows in alcohol. The girls’ mother, a photographer who both favored and obsessively photographed Nica, decamped to an artist commune, effectively abandoning what’s left of her family. Grace’s refusal to accept the official story — that an alienated student smarting from unrequited love shot Nica and hung himself — helps her discover her own strength and independence as she unearths the grim secrets sheltered in Chandler’s ivy-covered towers.

 

For other twisty thrillers, try Disclaimer by Renee Knight or Where They Found Her by Kimberly McCreight.

Lori

 
 

The Doll Maker

The Doll Maker

posted by:
July 3, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Doll MakerJessica Balzano and Kevin Byrne are back and hot on the trail of serial killers in Richard Montanari’s The Doll Maker, the eighth installment of this series about his Philadelphia-based investigators.

 

Byrne is grappling with the impending execution of a woman he put behind bars a decade before. The woman kidnapped and murdered a child, and he is convinced she had a hand in the disappearance of several other children. Determined to get her to confess to these disappearances before she dies, he has to navigate an endless spool of red tape to get close to her. However, there’s a new case developing that will take up all his time.

 

A girl sits placidly on a painted yellow bench as if waiting for a train, a half-smoked cigarette in her fingers. A passing cyclist initially doesn’t think anything is wrong, but then goes in for a closer look. The girl is dead, and the elaborately staged scene around her is part of a sick puzzle designed by killers who call themselves Mr. Marseille and Anabelle. When detectives Balzano and Byrne stumble upon an invitation to tea the next week at the murder site, they know they’re racing against time before the next death.

 

The next death happens, and this time it is two young people, but there’s something even more eerie waiting for the detectives: A doll designed to look exactly like the first victim and another invitation to tea for seven days from now. The victims seem random, but something about them triggers a memory for Byrne about a case he worked long ago.

 

Full of twists and turns and heart-stopping action, The Doll Maker is one to read for those who want to be spooked enough to sleep with the light on. Readers who enjoyed James Patterson’s The Postcard Killers, fans of a series like Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay and those who enjoy the show Criminal Minds will want to dive into the entire Balzano/Byrne series, starting with the first book, The Rosary Girls. 

Jessica

 
 

Novels That Thrill and Unsettle

Novels That Thrill and Unsettle

posted by:
June 26, 2015 - 12:00pm

Seveneves by Neal StephensonThe Water Knife by Paolo BacigalupiA Head Full of Ghosts by Paul TremblayWhat makes for a suspenseful, page-turning thriller? The kind of book that you can’t put down is often the book that can’t put you down, either — it pulls you in and shows up in your waking life as well as your dreams. Science fiction master Neal Stephenson is back with the highly anticipated Seveneves, this time speculating about the end of the world as we know it, and the cannily imagined rebuilding of our entire society. All good novels should hook the reader in its opening pages; Seveneves grabs you by the throat with its first sentence. “The Moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason.” Once the dust clears, it’s apparent that what’s left is “seven giant rocks where the Moon ought to have been.” This inciting action propels the novel forward, as politicians and scientists worldwide must ensure the survival of mankind. Not content to explore the immediate impact of such a catastrophic event, Stephenson then looks forward 5,000 years into the future to show how things have turned out. Need another tantalizing reason to pick up one of this summer’s most thrilling reads? The title refers not to the number of pieces of the former Moon, but to the lone seven women who must repopulate the human race. A smartly written, witty and intelligent epic that will make you think as much as it entertains, Seveneves deserves an audience beyond that of dedicated science fiction readers.

 

In The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi has seen the apocalyptic near-future of the American Southwest, and it is dry as bone. Fast-paced and as violent as any traditional crime story, the novel doesn’t need to go far to imagine what might happen if water were more precious than fossil fuels. Baciagalupi tells his story from the points of view of three diverse characters whose paths intersect. Angel Velasquez is the titular “water knife,” a gang-tattooed enforcer who ensures water rights for the Southern Nevada Water Authority at all costs. Prize-winning journalist Lucy Monroe chronicles the collapse of Phoenix, as the city is hit by relentless storms of dust and sand, and Maria Villarosa is a young Texas migrant (militias keep the desperate from crossing state borders) with dreams of moving north to greener, less harsh climes. Action packed and dialog-driven, this sci-fi tinged noir thriller of water politics, greed, corruption and survival is difficult to put down.

 

Readers looking for a more traditional horror tale should spend time with the Barrett family of Beverly, Massachusetts, in Paul Tremblay’s literary psychological thriller A Head Full of Ghosts. As the book begins, 20-something Merry has returned to the family’s former home, now dilapidated and up for sale, to meet with an author who is interested in her story. It all began when Merry was 8 years old and her sister Marjorie was entering her teens. Marjorie began acting strangely, scaring her sister with threats and terrifying stories. Her behavior became increasingly threatening and even supernatural, leading their stressed and unemployed father to consult with a Catholic priest. Are Marjorie’s issues related to her mental health, or could she have been taken over by a demon, a la The Exorcist? In a modern day twist, the family allows the whole thing to play out as a reality television show, The Possession, as a way to pay the mortgage. Tremblay writes with insight and humor, building suspense and tension through a story told by present-day Merry, 8-year-old Merry and a snarky blogger deconstructing The Possession 15 years later. Could Marjorie have been faking the whole thing?

Paula G.

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Thrilling Women

Thrilling Women

posted by:
May 15, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Bullet by Mary Louise KellyCover art for The Pocket Wife by Susan CrawfordGood news for thriller fans! Two new novels will have readers on the edge of their seats with gripping suspense, shattering secrets and women in peril who will do anything to stay alive.

 

NPR correspondent Mary Louise Kelly shares a story about fear, family secrets and one woman's hunt for answers in The Bullet. Caroline Cashion, a professor at Georgetown University, is stunned when an MRI reveals that she has a bullet lodged in her skull. Her parents finally admit that she was adopted at the age of 3 following her biological parents’ murders. Caroline was present at the crime, and in fact was struck by the same bullet that killed her mother. Doctors could not remove the bullet without risking Caroline’s death. Thirty-four years later, Caroline returns to her hometown to learn about her parents and their horrific deaths. But Caroline is in danger. The killer was never caught and the bullet in her head is the only evidence that can identify him. This fast-paced thriller, complete with a touch of romance, is perfect for fans of Lisa Gardner or Tess Gerritsen.

 

Susan Crawford’s The Pocket Wife introduces readers to Dana Catrell who suffers from bipolar disorder. Married to Peter, she is shocked when their neighbor Celia is brutally murdered. Upon learning that she was the last person to see Celia alive at a booze-fueled lunch marred by an argument over incriminating pictures of Peter, Dana threatens to descend into mania. Her husband is behaving oddly, and Detective Jack Moss is a frequent and persistent visitor. This is the story of a wounded woman teetering on the edge of sanity, determined to recover her memory and find the truth. But when Dana uncovers some of Celia’s secrets, she starts receiving threatening notes which Peter believes are self-authored. Alternating chapters follow Jack and his investigation and Dana, whose reliability is questionable and whose voice evolves with her changing mental state. The engaging characters add to this electrifying combination of solid mystery and fast-paced psychological thriller.

Maureen

 
 

Luckiest Girl Alive

Luckiest Girl Alive

posted by:
May 8, 2015 - 7:00am

Luckiest Girl AliveJessica Knoll's new adult fiction novel Luckiest Girl Alive is set in the same area where she grew up. Her protagonist also has the same profession Knoll used to hold. It’s probably because of this that her book is so rich with description and such vivid imagery.

 

TifAni grew up with a mother who always wanted what was best for her, but not necessarily what would make her happy. When in college she met her best friend Nell, who showed her how to manipulate people to get what was in her best interest. It was a combination of these two figures that helped TifAni create the “perfect” life for herself.

 

It was during high school that TifAni experienced a severe trauma. In order to distance herself from her past, TifAni changed her name to Ani when she went to college. Ani has always tried to fill her gaping emotional gap with possessions and prestige. After college, Ani went on to have a prominent job at a well-known women's magazine, a fiancé with old money and starves herself into a coveted size zero. Despite how perfect her life may seem to someone on the outside, nothing can smother the pain left by her teenage trauma.

 

This character driven account of one woman's desire to get all she's ever wanted is disturbingly candid. As you follow the bread crumbs through the story, you slowly gather more details of what TifAni went through as a troubled teen – and just when you think you've figured her out, she throws you a curve.

 

 

Randalee

 
 

Whirlwind Suspense

Whirlwind Suspense

posted by:
May 5, 2015 - 7:00am

Season of Fear by Brian FreemanTen years after an assassin’s bullet takes her husband’s life, Diane Fairmount  champions the cause of his fledgling political party, The Common Way, in Brian Freeman’s suspense novel Season of Fear. Attractive, popular and topping the polls, it looks like Diane is destined to become Florida’s new Governor. When an insidious voice echoes from the past, Diane turns to her best friend Tarla Bolton, whose son is former FBI agent turned private investigator Cab Bolton. Cab explores beneath the hype and unearths dirty tricks, long-buried secrets and political machinations. There are right-wing extremists, covert political operations and the murder of a young political operative. Has Cab revealed a right-wing terrorist, or is it a shrewd plot to lead him off target? Teaming with political researcher Peach Piper, Cab must race against time to stop the killer. For there is another havoc on the horizon – a hurricane is bearing down on Tampa, Florida, and it just might permanently bury the evidence.

 

Brian Freeman has created a cross between Jack Reacher and Richard Castle; handsome, wealthy and dynamic. It’s impossible not to root for Peach, a deeply troubled young woman determined to avenge her friend’s death. Part complex political thriller, part intense police procedural, Freeman weaves a web of intrigue that will leave you gasping for air. Move over Virgil Flowers, and make room for Cab Bolton.

 

Brian Freeman is the internationally best-selling author of psychological suspense novels, including The Cold Nowhere, Spilled Blood and the The Burying Place. Brian's debut thriller Immoral won the Macavity Award and was a nominee for the Edgar, Dagger, Anthony, and Barry awards for best first novel. Cab Bolton first appears in The Bone House

 

Leanne

 
 

Trapped by Fear

Trapped by Fear

posted by:
March 12, 2015 - 8:00am

Die Again by Tess GerritsenFamous for her taut, gripping, forensic thrillers, Tess Gerritsen once again leads us to the edge in Die Again.

 

Seeing a dog in the window of a home with a human finger in his mouth, a mailman immediately contacts the police. Boston homicide detective Jane Rizzolli and forensic pathologist Moira Isles discover the body of a big-game hunter, trussed hanging upside down, and ultimately the victim of a large cat. Leon Gott has hunted big game and is considered the finest taxidermist in the business, but it looks like the animal kingdom has decided to redress the difference. Isles believes this case is tied to a series of suspicious incidents involving hikers in remote areas. All of those killings involved big cat attacks, and some were dismissed as unfortunate encounters with nature. The investigation leads to a link between the taxidermist and a group on safari in Africa victimized by a leopard.

 

Six years previously, a group of vacationers seeking a unique African experience joined a safari. Expecting exotic adventures, fabulous sights and romantic evenings by the fire, they instead faught for their lives in a world that was ruled by “eat or be eaten.” Told through the eyes of Millie Jacobson, a London bookstore owner, we travel alternately between the murder investigation in Boston and the growing horror in Botswana, as each vacationer is attacked and dragged away, one by one.

 

Gerritsen is a master at weaving grisly details into her forensic science, and the result is a suspense-filled trip through terror. The writer is also ably adept at drawing believable, deeply human characters who struggle with the normalcy of daily life while facing the worst human nature can provide. The complex relationships among the investigating team as they struggle to unearth the truth and unmask a killer add to the realistic portrayal.

 

Fans of Kathy Reichs, Patricia Cornwell and Jeffery Deaver will find this a deeply satisfying read. There is also a television series featuring Rizzoli and Isles. Just remember, this trip is not for the faint of heart.

Leanne

 
 

Here Be Some Very Bad Dragons

The Great Zoo of China by Matthew ReillyPuff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.

 

CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”

 

Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.

Lori