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December 2, 2019

6 Thrillers to Read this Winter

by MK French


Secrets can lurk in the daytime or under cover of night. Not everyone wants to see them revealed, and it can become a chase to the finish line or a fight to the death. In these novels, it's more about the tension between revealing the truth and keeping secrets hidden no matter the cost.

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Snakeskins by Tim Major

Snakeskins
May 2019; Titan Books; 978-1789090789
ebook, print (416 pages); technothriller
A freak accident known as The Fall two hundred years ago led some people to develop the ability to shed their skin like a snake every seven years. While it was originally kept secret out of fear, eventually many powerful people were those that had the ability to do this, essentially keeping them young. Caitlin Hext is set to undergo a Shedding Ceremony, but her skin doesn't turn into dust as expected. Instead, her clone survives. Now she has to decide what to do with her clone and try to avoid the inevitable political upheaval that this could cause in the UK.

We begin with Caitlin and her family on the way to a Shedding ceremony, which is our entry into this new world. The government agent casually saying "you people" about those who shed skins serves the purpose of establishing that only a fraction of people can do this, and that they're looked down upon by the majority for this ability. That's a brilliant way to introduce the conflict and get us on the side of the Hext family, as well as feeling sorry for the Skin that is created by the process. This is a neat segue into meeting Gerry, the reporter fascinated by Snakeskins and Charmers, and gives us the ramifications of Britain's isolationist policies, as well as the actual power that political Charmers hold. The third thread is that of Russell Handler, secretary to Minister Blackwood, being asked to report on his activities to an unknown person because of the risk his actions will have on the country.

Caitlin's actual shedding takes place about a third of the way through the book. By that time, I'm already invested in the mystery surrounding Blackwood and the compatriots keeping Britain technologically backward compared to the rest of the world. I already want to know what Gerry could finally unearth that hadn't already been known about a two-hundred-year-old event. Adding in concern about the Skins themselves and what's happening to them is another layer I want to peel back as the novel continues. The novel picks up the pace even further about halfway in when we start to realize that there is a lot more to the Skins and the people involved in the situation, and the three threads of story start to entwine.

As with all good science fiction, there is the question of identity, political power, and how far people can go to do the right thing. It's done in a properly subtle manner, with the questions arising as a natural consequence as the story unfolds We're presented with different potential ways for Skins to be dealt with, and we can approach it from whatever perspective we need to take to wrestle with these hefty questions.

Buy Snakeskins at Amazon

Sweet Dreams by Tricia Sullivan

Sweet Dreams
July 2019; Titan Books; 978-1785658006
ebook, print (320 pages); technothriller
As a dreamhacker, Charlie can enter someone else's dream and change its course, though that means she also has narcolepsy. Her skills are in demand, and she uses them for therapeutic reasons to help stop nightmares or anxious dreams. One minor celebrity had dreams of a Creeper before sleepwalking off of a building, however, making Charlie believe she's not the only dreamhacker out there.

Charlie describes her skills as a dreamhacker as "Diary of a Call Girl meets Inception," which is rather how it works. She had developed her abilities after participating in a medical trial to address her narcolepsy, and uses them as a therapist. She has to be in the same room as the dreamer, so she often crashes on the floor or an armchair, and afterward leaves to go to another session that is booked for her. There are recordings of the dream sessions where applicable as well as a body cam and an earpiece that works like our smartphones. This version of London 2027 has a lot of wearable devices and programs similar to our own, but just slightly different and a little more advanced. There are programs to have people fall asleep, learn things during that sleep time, and even run simulations and games during that time as well.

In between her commentary and excerpts of case files are transcripts of the police interviewing her after Melodie's death. She's a very chatty and irreverent character, so I liked her right away. Other characters in the novel are likable, too; the agents interviewing Charlie have some flashes of personality shining through in the transcripts, and those are entertaining to read. Even before we meet the Creeper in Melodie's dreams, there is an undercurrent of something sinister in BigSky, the massive company that led to testing and is in control of the augmented reality system that people use. The further we go in the novel, there seems to be more and more that the AR touches on, and more of an integrated approach into how it works with the world at large. There is more intrigue and mystery, which entirely sucks me in. I love the mind bending-ness of the story, especially when it gets to the final third of the book. This is a great story, and will leave you with the question about consciousness and reality, and what to do with technology that can alter it.

Buy Sweet Dreams at Amazon

Solving Cadence Moore by Gregory Sterner

Solving Cadence Moore
November 2017; Aperture Press; 978-0997302080
ebook, print (370 pages); conspiracy thriller
Singer Cadence Moore disappeared without a trace ten years ago on a Pennsylvania highway. Charlie Marx is the host of a conspiracy radio show and obsessed with Cadence. For a special podcast series, he now is digging into her past and uncovering her darkest secrets. Charlie claims to have solved the mystery and promises to reveal Cadence’s fate at the end of a groundbreaking podcast series and live radio special. If it's true, he will have brought closure for Cadence. If not, his entire career will crash and burn on the air.

We start off with a sense of ominous doom with the prologue and hints that if Charlie knew what would happen, life would have been very different. With the conversational style that this is written in (along with very liberally sprinkled F-bombs and parenthetical asides like this), the novel proceeds with an urgency that really grabs you and sucks you in. Media is a cutthroat business, and podcasts are no different. Charlie has to lie to his boss that he had solved the mystery surrounding Cadence Moore's disappearance when his special is to be pushed up in production, as that was his last-ditch effort to try to get it published on the original timeline. Transcripts of the podcast in the book give us the background information about Cadence, the information uncovered so far, and why it's so important for Charlie's career to have actually solved the mystery that no one else could.

The novel, laid out like transcripts, really does bring home the intensity of the series, and it feels as though this could very well have been an actual podcast. There is a lot of suspense leading up to the final podcast, and it plays out like a murder mystery. We never find out what happens to Charlie's career, but this was definitely a wild ride of a novel.

Buy Solving Cadence Moore at Amazon

Conscious Bias by Alexi Venice

Conscious Bias
May 2019; eBookIt.com; 978-1456633189
ebook, print (466 pages); legal thriller
Monica Spade works in hospital law for a law firm. This is busier than it sounds, as a visitor lost her emotional support monkey on the grounds, the hospital is partnering with the local university and a construction company owned by a local businessman to build a stadium, and doctors are being subpoenaed to possibly testify in court. In addition, she is flirting with an attractive woman at the gym, dealing with sexist and homophobic comments by a coworker, and dealing with the old fashioned, patriarchal viewpoint in the firm she works in.

I hadn't read previous Monica Spade novels, but that didn't stop me from enjoying this one. This is a legal thriller that explores the biases that people have, and the ties of community. I hadn't realized that a lawyer's life could potentially be so hectic, and this novel was definitely engaging and pulled me right into Monica's story. The issues she deals with at work are very naturally done and feels real, as plenty of queer people have to ponder the question of being out with coworkers, friends and their community, especially if some members of it are conservative.  I found it fascinating to see what Monica's day to day life was like, and the background work that has to be done before a court case even gets to be argued.

Of course, it's a prominent family in Apple Grove, Wisconsin that is in the center of the emotional whirlwind. They generally are the "good ol' boy" stereotype, and a number of other people in the town would rather roll over and let the son get away with felony murder charges because the victim was a foreign exchange student from Saudi Arabia. The racism is brought up in myriad small ways, which a person not experiencing it would never even think of. Monica has her own moments where she jumped to conclusions, however innocently done, so she has her own internal biases to deal with. These are complex social issues to face, and she does try to do the right thing and stick with the rule of law.

The story progresses at a steady pace, with some suspenseful pieces as the Good Ol' Boys flex their proverbial muscles and try to intimidate Monica and the prosecutor. The story proceeds fairly realistically, and I found Monica to be a sympathetic character as she tried to juggle her job, the subtle and then overt sexism and homophobia directed at her, as well as trying to flirt. She is a lawyer that cares about her clients, and that to me is a wonderful kind of character to read about.

Buy Conscious Bias at Amazon

The Shape of Night by Tess Gerritsen

The Shape of Night
October 2019; Ballantine Books; 978-1984820952
audio, ebook, print (288 pages); psychological thriller
Ava Colette flees tragedy in Boston to move to a coastal Maine town. Her home, Brodie's Watch, is isolated enough that she feels safe until she discovers that the long-dead sea captain Jeremiah Brodie still haunts the house. In addition, there are rumors that every woman that has ever lived in the house had died there. Is it the ghost, or a serial killer coming for her?

Tess Gerritsen is known for the Rizzoli and Isles novels (which I hadn't read), so some people might be drawn to this book for the name recognition. It's not part of that series but meant to be more of a paranormal noir kind of novel. There are elements of BDSM in it as well, so it's very different from the usual crime and suspense novels! It's not as heavily described as the horribly written "Fifty Shades of Gray" series of novels, but Ava is bound, and there are scenes where she is whipped, there is a "jury" that is judging her for her crimes, and other times when she is simply cuddled when she feels alone. Of course, she won't want to discuss this aspect of her haunting, but it had still creeped her out just enough to go looking into the history of the house (ostensibly to add flavor to her cooking/history book) and potential hauntings. Ava does make friends with some locals, though she also drinks heavily while alone as well as socially, and also tried to look into the whereabouts of the prior tenant to her home when she found some of her belongings that were left behind.

The story progresses in a fairly straightforward, with some question as to what Ava is actually seeing and experiencing. It is simply drunken dreams? Is it due to an infection? It surrounds her, whatever it is, and it isn't until the end that it's absolutely clear what had happened to the women around Brodie's Watch. Even then, there is still the hint of a possible haunting, and some secrets are never fully disclosed to other characters. Ava sees it as proof of how much she loves her sister to carry her guilt with her, and it's also that same guilt that possibly drove the haunting in the first place. This is less of a horror tale than a spooky one with a hefty dash of intrigue, definitely fulfilling the intention of the novel.

Buy The Shape of Night at Amazon

Don't Forget Me by B. C. Schiller

Don't Forget Me
October 2019; Thomas & Mercer; 978-1542009638
audio, ebook, print (219 pages); psychological thriller
Five years ago, psychiatrist Olivia Hofmann's husband and daughter disappeared without a trace. That same year, a troubled young girl escaped from a treatment facility and was later found murdered in a quarry outside of Vienna. Olivia gets a postcard every year to commemorate the disappearance, and on the fifth anniversary, one of her patients mention that the dead girl is actually back from the dead. When he seems to commit suicide, tying up the case neatly, it doesn't sit right with Olivia or the original inspector of the case, Levi Kant. The more they look into the dead girl's history, the more the killer wants the case to remain closed. Is the truth worth their lives?

The novel takes place in Vienna, Austria. Punctuation and spelling follow British convention, and there are some differences in how doctors and police are treated. The reason for this is that Barbara and Christian Schiller wrote their crime thrillers in German, which were then translated to English. In addition, their translator Annette Charpentier, Ph.D. was born in Germany and currently lives in Wales. There are cultural differences for our American readers so that some of the police seemed especially standoffish and dismissive of others' concerns.

There seem to be two threads in this novel, one of Lisa Manz's murder that was being covered up quite deliberately by multiple people in charge that were willing to threaten Olivia's career as well as Levi's. The other that is mentioned several times was the disappearance of Olivia's family, though that is never actually solved. I'm sure that's not a spoiler, given that there is a whole series of Levi Kant novels that the Schiller team had written in Germany. I found it difficult to like most of the characters, and the mystery of Lisa's murder didn't hold my attention much. It revolved around abuses from her parents, who were too self-involved to care for each other let alone a child, as well as the medical staff. Putting an Alzheimer's patient at risk also soured me on the plot; I really don't like putting the mentally ill or infirm at risk in stories because they're an already vulnerable population that is vilified and abused enough in real life.

I believe this is a solidly written novel and had been well translated into English. I wanted to like this novel a lot more than I actually did, but it was so difficult to get to know the main characters. I didn't feel as though I had a real connection with them, and they were put into one terrible situation after another to further the plot. Maybe this is the age-old problem of introducing the main characters and setting up their backstory, and future novels in this series would be better to get to see them at their best.

Buy Don't Forget Me at Amazon


Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband and three young children. 

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3 comments:

  1. i only see one familiar author and i love thrillers. thanks for sharing some new to me ones
    sherry @ fundinmental

    ReplyDelete
  2. You're very welcome. There are so many good books in this bunch. :D

    ReplyDelete
  3. Oooh! I'm going to have to check out Don't Forget Me!!

    ReplyDelete

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