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by Donna Huber For the A to Z Challenge, I discussed different book genres/categories. Each day, I gave a few details about the genre/catego...

October 23, 2021

5 Books to Make Your Heart Race

by MK French

The longer, darker nights are the perfect backdrop for thrillers, suspense, and police procedurals. Whether you are looking for the dark and grittiness of a psychological thriller or the softer read of a romantic suspense novel, I have a little bit of everything today. Be sure to read to the end because I saved the one not to miss until the end.

Amazon affiliate links are used on this site. Free books were provided for an honest review.

Shade by Chad Nicholas

October 2021; Indie; 978-1734441666
ebook, print (390 pages); psychological thriller

Stopping a serial killer is proving to be more difficult than expected, with victims getting younger and younger. Trying to catch one killer seems to lead to the development of a new one. The lives of a former soldier and a victim dealing with guilt who isn't sure if she should be saved intertwine.

Our opening chapter has a team of agents that aren't described and eventually are only named by alphabetic code. They come across a horrifically stabbed body that apparently a former agent had killed, and each agent in turn is killed with no explanation. Then we meet Sara, suicidal and guilty regarding a past "it" that isn't even hinted at, which I found frustrating. Jack's introduction stresses unease and a horrific murder, but the lack of description didn't seem to match. Not that I necessarily need endless paragraphs of gore, but all that is mentioned is "something missing" and the stoic FBI agent is shocked and grossed out, to the point that "he knew that no matter what he did for the rest of his life, he would never get that image out of his head." What image?? We're told later what was missing, which I could guess from the start, but it was anticlimactic and didn't feel accurate for a seasoned agent to be so disturbed by. This constant vagueness in each situation came across as irritating rather than mysterious. 

Between characters jumping to conclusions and knowing what others are thinking even with no objective evidence for it, and Jack acting unethically when he seems to be the moral center, I have a hard time believing in the plot or characters. How is Shade, who is supposed to have hallucinated so badly that he was medically discharged from the army, trusted enough to be part of FBI teams to investigate serial killers? I don't buy it. When we actually see Shade in action, I can see why other agents would be so frightened by his scarily efficient and soulless manner of killing. I have no attachment to any of the nameless agents that fall like dominoes, and jumping between the past and the present is only differentiated by the italics vs standard type.

If you manage to get past that point, the final quarter of the book actually has a lot of really good tension in it. Likely because we have named characters here, and we know who they are and there's more of an attachment. Realizing what is actually happening helps, and it all slots into place. I like that part of the book best and the hopeful note at the conclusion. It's a lot to go through before the really good part, though the fights prior to that are pretty intense as well. I would have preferred to care more about what happened earlier in the novel.

Buy Shade at Amazon
(Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read it for FREE!)

The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward

The Last House on Needless Stree
September 2021; Tor Nightfire; 9781250812629
audio, ebook, print (352 pages); domestic thriller

At the end of a dead-end street is a family of three. The teenage girl isn't allowed outside, the man drinks alone and has gaps in his memory, and the house cat loves napping and reading the Bible. A secret binds them together, and a neighbor moving in next door threatens to expose it.

Ted is an oddity from the beginning, still referring to his long-gone parents as Mommy and Daddy and dissociating at times. His thoughts are simple, short, and almost childlike. His daughter Lauren seems to appear and disappear for weekends, and she alternatively hates him and adores him. Olivia is a religious cat that has an emotional tie to Ted, and wants to keep him safe even as being a house cat keeps her safe. She has her own POV chapters in this book, an interesting concept. Her thoughts are interesting, ranging from the time she was born to the thread that binds her to Ted, the Bible verses she picks by shoving the book off the table, and the tabby cat that passes back and forth in front of the holes in the planks boarding up the windows.

A girl had gone missing in the area years ago, and Ted had been accused of it, even though he had nothing to do with it. The girl's sister Dee had her entire life upended when Lulu disappeared, and followed an old article from the period stating that Ted had been a suspect. She moves into the old house to spy on him and isn't sure what she'll find. Everything certainly looks bad, and Dee is more than a little obsessed and sure that she's right.

The actual secret in the house on Needless Street becomes clear toward the end of the book. At that point, it is clear that the "bad guy" isn't who we thought it was at all. Characters are far more nuanced than that, and in retrospect, the clues were all there. An attic and basement that Ted sees but Dee doesn't, a weekend place that Ted isn't seen going to, and a creeping sense of unease that things Aren't Right. Trying to figure out the truth draws us in, and the close of the novel fulfills that need flawlessly.

Unknown by Vanessa Hall

August 2021; Indie; B09D446DX6
ebook (331 pages); Christian suspense

After ten years in the US, Gabriel Kelly is returning to Russia to bury his parents. Before he left Moscow, he and Sofia Rykova might have had a relationship, but their differences in religion prevented that. She is now a principal soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet, but seeing Gabriel again makes her wonder if there’s more to life than ballet. With suspicions increasing around the deaths of Gabriel’s parents, however, the two will be embroiled in a far bigger plot.

This is the first book in the Grace Sufficient series, romantic suspense novels set in Russia. We open with meeting Sofia in her element, dancing and joking around with Bolshoi staff and her brother. In contrast, Gabe’s opening is marked by grief following his parents’ funeral. I understand that it was a religious ceremony and that his parents worked in a church. It struck me as strange that it’s easily recognizable words and services that are referenced when they’re in Russia. The Orthodox church is different from Western ones; that isn’t clarified until the next chapter when they mentioned being part of a small Baptist church. Still, a Baptist church in Russia? I didn’t realize missionaries worked there.

The first hint that we as the reader get that the death of Pastor Kelly and his wife weren’t part of an ordinary burglary was a bit of a surprise. It’s early on, and Sofia and Gabe don’t discover it until much later. Reading that indicates this is going to be much more emotional on the suspense side than I thought it was going to be at first. Sofia and Gabe still having an attraction after ten years apart wasn’t a surprise, because the romantic side of the story has to be built on something. She’s drawn to the peace and calm of his church life, and Gabe feels called to remain in Russia and be part of the Baptist church. Because he’s staying, however, he’s assumed to know more about why his parents were killed than he does. This progresses over time and is built out of paranoia.

Gabriel does proselytize a bit, whether with neighbors and others he meets. This leads Sofia to convert to Christianity, which irritates her brother, and then she starts proselytizing to people she knows. The attacks escalate, as do the prayers to God, until we get to the final third of the book. There’s really nothing redeeming about Dimitri, and with the choices that he made, I really hated him as a character in the final chapters. Sofia and Gabe continue to rely on their faith and the friends they made to guide their choices. I suppose the suspense of this book refers to whether or not they’ll make it through the end based on the underworld connections that keep trying to kill Gabe. The romance novel aspect meant that they had to survive, and with them being the religious ones in a tale like this, I knew their survival was guaranteed. That kind of removed the suspense for me, but that’s the nature of the genre conventions and not being able to suspend disbelief as I read through. It’s a solid story otherwise and will please a lot of readers that want faith front and center in their romances. 

Buy Unknown at Amazon

The Ice Coven by Max Seeck

The Ice Coven
September 2021; Berkley; 978-0593199695
audio, ebook, print (464 pages); police procedural

Jessica Niemi is tackling a dual disappearance of internet influencers and a young woman's corpse washing up on a lonely beach. They seem tied together, especially when members of her homicide squad find new clues about the woman and the missing bloggers that seem to tie them together. Through all of this, Jessica has nightmares and hallucinates her dead mother and mentor, complicating her current case.

The Ice Coven follows The Witch Hunter, which I hadn't read. We start off knowing that Jessica was deeply affected by a prior case and that her mentor had died recently of cancer. This leaves a new superintendent in charge, one that doesn't like her on her sight and hates her reputation for haring off and doing whatever she wants. It seems so over the top, but the new superintendent is ambitious and wants a team that cares about her authority. Jessica doesn't and is seen as too individualistic when she dismisses other team members' theories behind the missing blogger or dead girl. It doesn't help that some of the team members don't actually like her anymore, and won't talk with her directly.

Jessica and her team chase down leads and the forensic clues while she's dogged by hallucinations, dreams, and a superintendent only too eager to dismiss her. I felt sorry for her when she was targeted, and felt isolated because she didn't think her coworkers that she was closest with would like her if they realized she had a moneyed background. At the same time, the longer she kept her problems to herself, the harder it became to talk about. Her "horrific" past was largely one of grief and loss, and I found it sad more than terrifying.

The "cult" mentioned in the official summary doesn't seem like one we normally would identify as a religious one. Alternative practices exist, and apparently, these are intertwined with the main case as a means of controlling them. It's fascinating how all the threads pull together, even the ones that turn out to be wrong. It doesn't seem like much difference between Finnish police duties and those we're familiar with in America, especially once we discover that the case is a larger one than it initially appeared. I enjoyed that aspect of this novel and was looking forward to the ending.

Buy The Ice Coven at Amazon

Ice Angel by Matthew Hart

Ice Angel
September 2021; Pegasus Crime; 978-1643138114
ebook, print (336 pages); heist thriller

An American prospector was murdered in the middle of a diamond field in Alaska, and Alex Turner is tasked with discovering exactly what happened. The US government fears that a pair of dangerous and connected Chinese twins are infiltrating the area through their clandestine ownership of the prospector's company. The prospector's daughter is also involved now. He enlists the help of his lover Lily, a treacherous woman and jewel thief. They love each other and are in danger as they crisscross the globe.

Ice Angel is the sequel to The Russian Pink, which I hadn't read. Either way, I could easily understand that Lily was hardly an innocent woman. She's sharp and fast on the uptake from the start, and through her discussion with Alex we learn more about the diamond industry in Alaska, and how important Jimmy Angel's find for diamonds could be. He describes their love as "the kind where you try to outwit, use, and deceive each other until your hearts are black and blue, and shame is the measure of your tenderness." Right there, that tells you all you need to know about Lily and Alex.

Besides the missing Jimmy starting off the novel, we have the twins who essentially maneuvered their way into ownership of Jimmy's company and ousting his daughter, several gunfights and chases, and multiple government agencies spying and playing each other. The paranoia and tension circle each other for the entire book, and whatever Alex was told to do for this case is layered. He's at once an agent and a pawn and understands this even as he hates it. The kind of love that he has for Lily, where they regularly lie to each other and elide where their interests lie, is exactly the same kind of treatment he gets from his superiors and their superiors. It isn't all about diamonds, though they play a large role in the motivation and execution of their plans.

It's fascinating and tense and drew me in to stay up long after I should have gone to bed. Absolutely worth it!

Buy Ice Angel 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, three young children, and a golden retriever.

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