Category Archives: Thrillers

Review: Unbreakable (Cari Hunter)

If you’re going to start a book, you could do worse than to make it the kidnapping of a doctor at gunpoint in a garage by a woman with multiple injuries, including a gunshot wound.

That’s how Dr. Grace Kendal meets Elin Breckinridge at the opening of the book. As they make their way out of the garage and hit the road, Grace learns at least a little about Elin, and realizes she needs some immediate medical care. She urges Elin to go to the hospital, but that option is right out.

How did we get here? Elin runs a security-related company with a friend from the Army. In flashbacks, er learn that one evening, two men burst into her home, beating her up, and taking her young daughter Amelia, nicknamed Mouse. After Elin wakes up from her beating, she finds the kidnappers want a million pounds, and they want it quickly. She starts transferring money around, which catches the attention of her friend. After finding out what’s happening, he rushes over, but she insists she has to go alone. She’s given instructions on where to go, ending up on the heath, where one of the men is waiting. Unfortunately for him, he gets his head blown off by a third party, and Elin gets shot trying to get away. She manages to elude those chasing her, and then goes on, trying to figure out how to get medical care – she very nearly goes into the ER but then spots Grace, and we wind up at the beginning.

DS Safia Faris and her partner Suds catch the case of the dead guy on the Heath. They quickly realize the scene seems wrong. Eventually, they make their way to where Elin had parked, and through CCTV from one of the homes, realize she’s been injured. The race is on for them to determine who she is. As they work the case, they get the call about Grace not appearing for her next shift, and through cameras again, find the mystery woman has taken her.

Meanwhile, Grace has removed the bullet from Elin, but Elin is still in very poor shape. As Grace is doing something in the lobby, one of the concierge people tell her an older man was in, looking for Elin, but he didn’t give the guy any info. Elin tells Grace they must leave immediately,and they do. Elin, still holding the million pounds, gets a call on the burner phone she was given, giving them the next location to be. Safia and Suds are not far behind on things.

There is no sudden instalove between Grace and Elin, and I was thankful for that, even in a “fall in love with the caregiver” trope. There is a touching love between Safia and her wife Kami (also great sounding food, courtesy of Kami’s grandmother).

It becomes fairly clear who is behind the whole thing if one pays close attention. The action keeps the book moving along, and you may find, as I did, that you read the book in a single sitting. The police procedural portion is excellent, even with a point I’d say could have been picked up earlier, and the fugitive from justice (sort of) part is likewise very good. Characters don’t suddenly start saying or acting in ways inconsistent from how they were introduced, and all the adults are adults.

I’m going five stars on this one.

Thanks to Bold Strokes Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Younger Wife (Sally Hepworth)

What happens when you dream up some characters, give them what seem to be perfect lives, and then throw them all in a bag called dysfunction? Toss in ambiguous POV storytelling and an ambiguous ending, and you get The Younger Wife.

The books opens with an unnamed POV crashing the wedding of established, respected – revered, even -Dr Stephen Ashford to his much younger second wife. After the vows, there’s a thunk and a scream, and suddenly we are moving back in time to What Happened Before.

Heather, the younger wife of the tile is about the age of Stephen’s grown daughters. Stephen’s wife Pam suffers from dementia and is in a nursing home where she can be tended.

Rachel, the older of the Ashford sisters, is a baker, and hasn’t dated anyone since she was 16. We’re not told why until late in the book (and the end of that intentional dry spell turns out to be Mr Perfect: handsome, witty, understanding. Of course he does.)

Tully, the younger sister, is an obsessive kleptomaniac who engages her compulsion when she is stressed, and she tries to hide the things she takes from her husband by dumping them into charity boxes. Her husband, for his part, has made a disastrous investment and lost a couple of million dollars, so they’ll have to sell their house, sell a bunch of their stuff, and downsize.

Heather grew up in poverty, eventually breaking out of that and eventually becomes a well-regarded an expensive interior designer, which is how she met Stephen.

Stephen and Heather (well, primarily Stephen) spring the wedding news on Rachel and Tully at lunch one day. Not a nice thing to do, and of course they are shocked. The remainder of the book is told from POVs that cycle through the female characters. Secrets and backgrounds are slowly exposed, until we get to the heart of the matter: is Stephen a domestic abuser? The girls seem to think so, sifting through memories, looking at injuries their mother sustained, Heather being involved in a couple of falls, an so on.

Or, is it all in their heads? Are their memories being tainted by their conclusion that he is? This is where the ambiguity comes in.

It’s not possible for the reader to accurately make that determination. The girls do – of course, as otherwise, there would be no ending or explanation as to what happened at the beginning – but for the reader, it’s akin to the Choose Your Own Adventure books: do you take the dirt path and change being eaten by a bear? Or do you take the path through the woods, chancing death by tiger?

What you cannot do, in life or in this book, is not choose.

If you’re a reader who likes a definitive ending, this is not the book for you.

The only thing I noted was a little sag in the middle, and Mr Perfect showing up in Rachel’s life.

Four out of five stars.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Deadly Little Lies (Stephanie DeCarolis)

It took going deep into this book for me to care at all about these characters.

Why? Because quite frankly they sounded like (and acted like) privileged white women. Juliana, who is the primary character, is also depressing as hell, always worried about her husband finding out the dirty/deadly little lie from her past. When the past comes up to bite her in the rear, instead of just telling him, she pushes him far, far away, which pisses him off. And rightly so. It’s one thing to keep a secret in general. But this is the guy you wanted to spend the rest of your life with, and you don’t tell him anything at all?

Not the mysterious text that says “Remember me?” from a college classmate who died. Not the sense that someone has been in your apartment. Not the point you realize it’s fact that someone’s been in the apartment, not the threat written in lipstick on your bathroom mirror. Not that you never gave your school your address, email or physical, and how the invitation to the reunion showed up. Not the fact that three other women you went to school with all have the same mysterious things happening.

Truthfully, I wanted to chuck it after the nth time Jules starting moaning about her cushy little life with a secret instead of doing anything constructive about it.

The narrative flashes between now and then (“then” being their college days and the bitchy little clique they formed). I had much more sympathy and like points for the men and women they stomped on.

The four women all go to the reunion like idiots, blithely following a note that tells them to be somewhere at a certain time, without any of them letting their husbands know. There’s suspension of disbelief and then there’s this.

The premise was good. I simply did not like the execution.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to HQ and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Perfect Neighborhood (Liz Alterman)

Allison Langley ditches her husband and their supposed perfect life in their perfect house in Oak Hills in the middle of the night. In suburbia, everyone thinks they know your business, so the the tongues start flapping with gossip, true or not.

But then five year old Billy Barnes goes missing while walking home alone one day. Suddenly, everyone is a detective, or a pretender that their own lives are perfect while dumping on Billy’s mom Rachel, whose marriage is rocky and who has a stepson who is as much a jackass as his father Ted, Rachel’s husband, although for different reasons. They also lay blame on 18 year old Cassidy, the babysitter, who was late getting to the house. It’s hard to say if Billy went missing as he was walking home, or if he made it home, and was taken from there. The police can’t find anything, and when they drag the pond, it turns into a neighborhood event, with everyone watching.

Another child goes missing – also under Cassidy’s care, and you can imagine how well that goes over with the neighborhood, which had started to feel sorry for her.

The story is told from various members of the neighborhood, but only the women. That includes Rachel, who is absolutely torn up about her missing boy, Cassidy, who can’t bring herself to tell the truth about why she was late, and Allison, who has escaped the neighborhood for reasons she details in her pieces of the narrative, and who is obsessed by Billy’s disappearance.

The story is interesting – what white bread shark’s nest suburbia isn’t, when they’re ready to chop one another into pieces? – but there was at least one POV chapter I’d have stricken as not adding much to things other than trying to be Cassidy’s conscience. The villain is not entirely out of the blue, and the ending hints at a possible not-sequel-but-next-book sort of thing.

The writing itself is fine, and while there are a couple of draggy bits here and there, I chalk that up to typical going about life things: most peoples’ lives are boring and routine, and sometimes the narrative has to show that.

Three and half out of five stars, rounded up to four, because the book works.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Edge of Yesterday (C.J. Birch)

As a rule, I try to avoid science fiction that involves time travel. Time travel gets very messy, and most authors don’t think enough about the implications on a character’s own timeline when moving those characters back and forth through time. Case in point: a recent movie on one of the streaming services that sent soldiers back in time to gather a group of people to come fight in the future (of those soldiers) against something. I didn’t watch it because my immediate thought was: why not just bring technology backwards or give it to the people in that time, a la Star Trek IV’s transparent aluminum?

In any case, I’m glad I took a chance on this book, because it is fantastic.

Hundreds of years into the future, people 0n Earth are living far underground to avoid detection by drones. Most live a hand to mouth existence, there is no sun, no plants, and no fun. It seems nanobot technology ran amok (Terminator-style) and humans went into hiding.

Using AI as a helper, they’ve figured out how to use time travel, and they send people back to the past with specific tasks to perform to try to avoid having this particular occur, based on percentages determined by the AI. I could see a problem with this.

Easton Gray is selected to be a level five in her department: the level fives are the people who slip into the past, perform their task, and then hit the recall option on the computer implanted in their forearm. Her sister Calla is the only family she has left: her mother died when she was 12, and her father died at some undetermined date along the way. Calla has been promoted to the survey crew – a very dangerous job in itself – but Easton doesn’t want her to take it because of the danger. They argue a bit about it, and Easton tries to deal with Calla’s boss to move her to something else, only to find someone higher on the food chain has already done this. As it turns out -and as to be expected -it isn’t just actions in the past that have consequences.

Easton makes the jump. Her task: find and kill Zach Nolan, who is deemed responsible for the nanobots raging out of control. She finds herself in a field, naked, near a farmhouse. When the residents leave, she pops in, steals some clothes, and she’s on her way. Eventually, she finds and presumably breaks into the veterinary office of Dr Tess Nolan.

It turns out Tess has come to live in this rural town after leaving Vancouver and a rather crazy woman she was dating. The local vet was retiring, so she bought the practice. Tess happens to come into the office, and patches up Easton, who refuses to go to the hospital.

They meet again around town. Easton continues gathering information, as the people coming from the future are dropped in near when their target(s) can be acquired, never an exact date. Tess and Easton get to know one another, and they’re quite taken with one another. But Easton knows that not Zach alone needs to die: his discoveries go to Tess when he dies, and she is then responsible for the dystopian nightmare in the future. Easton arranges it, then sits back.

Only to find herself dropped into the field again. Something has gone wrong, and when that happens, they’re just dropped right back into the same place to try again.

Easton goes through a few of these iterations, increasingly having issues with not wanting to kill Tess, even though she knows one death could save billions.

But then a mystery visitor shows up, and the entire mission is turned on its head. I won’t go further than that except to say: the explanation makes complete sense, and confirmed one of my suspicions. The action picks up as hunters arrive to chase them, and the outcome is…well, you’ll have to read it.

It’s a great read, even if you’re not particularly into science fiction. If you do like science fiction, like me, I think you’ll find both the technological and philosophical issues around time travel adequately explained, and better, to make sense.

Five out of five stars. Highly recommended.

Thanks to Bold Stroke Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: I’ll be You (Janelle Brown)

Twins Elli and Sam are discovered one day on a beach by a talent scout/agent. While Elli isn’t exactly over the moon about being an actor, Sam takes to it immediately. They hit the jackpot, since twins are able to allow Hollywood to work around the max hours underage children can work. As the grind off filming goes on, Elli becomes more and more reserved, and it’s clear she doesn’t want to do it any longer. Sam come sup with an idea: “I’ll be you,” she says, and so she does, taking on both her and Elli’s parts. This is draining, though, and no one notices. Except the makeup artist, who tells Sam she’s going to burn out if she keeps it up. Sam continues, though, and the makeup artist starts her on a dark road by giving her Adderall.

Eventually, the girls age, and as happens far too often for the very young in Hollywood, there are soon some unpleasant items popping up: Elli gets drunk and vomits at a party, Sam, now on to more drugs than Adderall, passes out one day after excusing herself from another party.

The book deals with the grownup Elli and Sam. The backstory we get in a series of “Then” chapters. Sam’s downward trajectory into drugs and alcohol continued, eventually consuming her and leaving her broke. After multiple rehab stints, she’s finally sober for over a year, and attending AA. She now works as a barista at a coffee shop. Part one is from Sam’s POV.

One day, Sam gets a call from her father, asking her to come home and help them. With what? The niece she didn’t know she had, because she hasn’t spoken to Elli in over a year. The toddler is running the grandparents ragged. Sam agrees, and heads home.

There she finds her parents caring for Elli’s adopted child, while Elli attends some kind of spa. But Elli’s been gone for a couple of weeks, and her parents have no idea where exactly she is, or when she’s coming back.

From there, the book takes off, and it’s Sam who drives it forward. Part two is from Elli’s POV, and we get her story on what’s she’s doing – basically, joining a cult that’s obviously based on Scientology. She’s pushed into a rather despicable act

But it’s Sam who is the more interesting POV character, who tracks down Elli, who discovers the truth about everything and who, despite her history, and against all odds, winds up being the rational one in the entire mess. I love a good redemption story.

There are a couple of UK Englishisms on the front end of the story but they’re not interruptive ad it’s clear what is meant, so no ding for that. the story is well told, and the dive into the formative years for the twins in Hollywood is fun, despite what Sam gets into. There are no slow spots here. It’s a one sit read, really, and in this case, that’s a good thing.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Random House and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Agent in Berlin – Wolf Pack Spies #1 (Alex Gerlis)

Another fantastic book from Alex Gerlis, whose Richard Prince novels are as fine fiction as I’ve ever read.

We’re back to Berlin and more spying, except this time, it’s a bona fide ring of spies, cast from diverse characters living in Berlin.

Barnaby Allen is recruited to the spy game and tasked with setting up a network of spies in Berlin after the Nazis have taken hold but before the invasion of Poland in 1939. He also encourages those recruits to be on the lookout for others who may be willing to engage in a very dangerous game as well.

His very first recruit is a gay German citizen and businessman, Werner Lustenberger, who is affable, charming, and about as Bondian a spy as it gets in Gerlis’ world. He befriends, and then beds a member of the SS, among other things.

American Jack Miller joins the ring of spies, having come to Berlin to cover the Olympics, and who stays to write travel and sports pieces, which allows him to go practically anywhere with a ready-made reason to be there. He gets friendly with the Reich’s sports minister, who gives him additional protection when he wanders out of bounds a couple of times.

There’s Sophie, sick of her high ranking SS husband, and who finds the husband’s personal diaries and realizes the horrific things he’s doing. Though afraid, she’s able and willing to do the things the spywork requires: taking pictures of various places, getting people out of the country, and so on.

And there’s the saddest spy ever: Tadashi Kimura, a diplomat at the Japanese embassy in Berlin, who, in his words, commits treason for the sake of love.

Spycraft abounds: secret meeting places, coded phone calls, and, as the years roll by, an ever-tightening, claustrophobic feeling that the next encounter could be game over for the spies. For some of them, alas, it is.

It’s a fascinating read that at points may feel slow but isn’t: the slower areas are just a pause, so the various pieces can be put into place before setting the board in motion once more.

Highly recommended, and five stars out of five.

Thanks to Canelo and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Push Back (James Marx)

When I was younger and reading everything I could get my hands on, one summer I ran across the Mack Bolan Executioner series. Never read them in order, and never again after that summer,but boy, those were fun books.

Push Back reminds me of those books,but in a good way. It’s more cerebral than “guy goes out to inflict maximum damage on thugs who wronged his family” but at its heart, it is exactly that.

The book opens with a bang – literally. Dean Riley, former Ranger, ex-cop, is on his knees in his own home when someone uses his gun to murder two cops. He may not be as young as he used to be, but Riley manages to get the upper hand on the murderer and make his escape.

We then go back in time just a wee bit, with Riley’s nephew asking to meet him at a park. They’ll hang out, fish, have a couple of beers, talk. But when Riley arrives, his nephew’s car is there, but he is not – snatched by parties unknown, and Riley decides he’ll get his nephew back no matter what it takes.

What it takes is a ton of driving around, beating up three punks who want to rob him, taking peoples’ cars, sneaking back into his own house – a murder scene – to get a few things, and trying not only to outwit a large crew of corrupt cops, but to figure out what is going on with those corrupt cops.

He figures out part of it right away: they need a fall guy for the disappearance of the nephew, who is being held for a very specific purpose. How to unravel that plays out as Riley makes his way through various bent cops, beating up the people who need it (but not outright killing people unless it’s in defense), and slowly pulling out the thread to get the entire story.

There are a few UK Englishisms in the book, but they’re barely noticeable thanks to the fast pacing of the story.

One of the good things is that he is not some superhero cop who takes a bunch of beatings and bullets but shows no sign of it at all: he does get shot, he gets into fights, and by the end is about as worn down as someone can be without being dead. I suppose that’s a minor spoiler, but come on: there was no doubt Mack Bolan or James Bond would live to fight another day, and there’s no doubt here. There are just degrees of injuries to get past before the next fight. By the ending of this one, there seems to be a sequel planned, and I’ll be happy to read that whenever it arrives.

Four and a half stars rounded up to five because Dean Riley seems like a righteous dude and isn’t portrayed as Superman.

Thanks to Burning Chair LTD and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Silent Sisters – Charles Jenkins #3 (Robert Dugoni)

The final(?) book in the Charles Jenkins series has Jenkins once again going to Russia for the Sisters.

The last two Sisters – sleeper agents for the American CIA – have gone radio silent. Jenkins is once again recruited to head to Russia. The mission this time: get the two remaining women exfiltrated and back to the US.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews my major issue with this series. It’s just fantastically difficult for me to see an over six foot tall, over 200 pound, black spy in Russia able to move around as he was, in a country that is predominantly white. That is (partially) solved, at least at the beginning here, by Jenkins assuming a disguise that involves making him white: mask on the face, long gloves on the hands, and so on. He also enters the country under an assumed ID of a British textile salesman (and hilariously, gets asked by a guard to give the uniform manufacturers something breathable, like cotton, as Moscow is in the throes of a late heat wave).

Jenkins checks in at an out of the way hotel, then goes to a really out of the way dive of a bar, where he does something monumentally stupid: he involves himself in the business of two locals and a woman who is obviously a prostitute. In the alley, he steps in when one of the guys is about to sexually assault the woman. One of the men accidentally shoots the other dead, then runs away, and the prostitute asks Jenkins, “What have you done?”

Good question. As it turns out,the dead guy is the son of the woman who runs one of the most powerful organized crime families in Moscow. Jenkins realizes he’s left a fingerprint behind at the scene.

So now, Jenkins has the mob boss, a cop on the verge of retirement (who is a widower with a perfect record of closing cases, of course), and the head of a division who is looking for a promotion on his tail. But not, amazingly, the FSB, who has a kill order for Jenkins. It would be inconvenient for all these other parties if Jenkins was knocked off.

He manages to get away fro his hotel before anyone comes looking, and gets the first Sister passed on to the person who will then pass her on to another person, etc., until she’s out of the country. There’s very little about her, as the other Sister – Maria, assistant to the head of the division – is the more interesting one.

Quite a good chunk of the middle is taken up by narrative from Maria’s POV, and it is absolutely fantastic. It’s the best part of the entire book, in my opinion.

Eventually, Jenkins and Maria are on the run – there’s an assassin working to eliminate her and capture him, the mob family, the cop, our old friend Federov who used to be FSB, and a heroin dealer whose nickname is The Fly involved and a nice comeuppance at the end for a particularly slimy party.

Overall: a solid four out of five stars, and a good closing to the series. Maybe. Dugoni puts in the afterward that he’s heading to Egypt, so who knows what the future holds for Jenkins. I sense Jenkins might fit in a little better there, but still, 6’+ and 200+ pounds? I suppose we’ll see.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Left-Handed Twin – Jane Whitefield #9 (Thomas Perry)

I jumped into this series at the ninth book. I have not read any of the previous books in the series, nor have I read anything else the author has written. This could be read as a standalone, but I think it would be better to read the series in order. As a first time reader of this one, I was a bit regretful that I’d not read the previous books to give some kind of context for the way Jane acts the way she does. She’s a guide, helping people disappear (said people are called ‘runners’).

We open with Jane driving to her original family home from the home she shares with her surgeon husband, and it seems every piece of road she travels is explained to us. If you’re a regular reader of my reviews, you’ll know that a pet peeve of mine is overly detailed descriptions of where the characters are traveling, what roads they’re taking, if they turn off any side roads, and so forth. There is a TON of this in this book. Once Jane gets what she needs, she heads home.

Jane travels again to what is basically her safe house and finds a young woman there. She’d slept with someone other than her boyfriend Albert. Albert drags her along and shoots the man dead in front of her. Albert is arrested and Sara is advised to testify against him. Inexplicably, Albert beats the charge and starts his pursuit of Sara. When his efforts to find and kill her are fruitless, he turns to a friend of his for some suggestions about how to go about catching her. Said friend introduces him to the Russian mafia – and they want Albert to join them in hunting – not Sara, however. They want Jane. If they happen to find Sara, he can do what he wants with he, but the primary mission is to find and kidnap Jane so she can be sold o the highest bidder.

It’s at this point the story really gets moving: a cat and mouse game between Jane (trying to find a place where Sara (now Anne) can call home) and the Russians (local crews trying to track them down). Eventually, we wind up with Jane on the most dangerous portion of the Appalachian Trail.

Issue: Jane, it is said, has conducted over a hundred escapes. Yet it didn’t occur to her that maybe the bad guys keep catching up because of a GPS tracking device, a lojack tied to the battery, or Onstar? Her plan also has a hole in it that I won’t detail here, and on the Trail, it takes her quite a bit of time to start playing offense versus defense.

Eventually, we wind up back at Jane’s safe house, where we get to see a very inventive solution to an almost impossible problem.

Issue: the writing. Repetitive, often stilted, and a lot of short, declarative sentences: Jane went to Target. Jane bought x, y, and z. Jane spread out he poncho. Jane fell asleep. Jane ate (food). Jane urinated. It really had a “See Spot run” to it.

Issue: we don’t get much about the runner in this one. We do get quite a lot about Albert.All we really know is that she went to a lot of parties the the elite A listers attended. I won’t ding the book for that, as the blurb for it suggests that the focus should all be on Jane.

Overall: three out of five stars.

Thanks to Mysterious Press an NetGalley for the reading copy.