Tag Archives: psychological thriller

Sounding the Alarm

tolling of mercedes bell

The Tolling of Mercedes Bell: A Novel (She Writes Press, $18.95, 416 pages)

In the style and spirit of P.D. James, author Jennifer Dwight captures the tough terrain of a psychological thriller. Presented through an unflinching panoramic vision, the reader soon is pulled into the harrowing six-year journey of Mercedes Bell, a thirty-four-year-old paralegal; a recent widow with a four-year-old daughter. She soon finds what she believes is her dream come true. This award winning book novel lays the groundwork for its shocking, blood-curdling climax with a careful, meticulously crafted build-up of subtle clues.

After the midpoint in the narrative, when the plot reaches a crescendo following an accumulation of very subtle descriptions foreshadowing doom, we are still treated to vivid emotional imagery:

she was trapped into a reality, as if she had stepped into an Escher illustration where the stairs that seemed to go up really went down; where the doors that seemed to open to the outside really opened inward, into dark places of suspicion and fear.

tollling of MB amazon

This is a wonderful page-turner, with a number of of unpredictable subplots. I loved even the dastardly characters because I felt I could understand their insecurities and fears! In summary, this is a wonderful and astonishing page-turner and debut novel.

Highly recommended.

Diana Y. Paul

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on May 3, 2016.

Diana Y. Paul is the author of Things Unsaid: A Novel. You can read more of her entertainment and cultural reviews at the Unhealed Wound blog:

http://unhealedwound.com/

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I Shall Be Released

I’m beginning to hear voices and there’s no one around…/ Reality has always had too many heads. Bob Dylan, “Cold Irons Bound.”

Forgetting Place

The Forgetting Place: A Novel by John Burley (William Morrow, $14.99, 344 pages)

Wow.

John Burley’s second novel, The Forgetting Place, is a worthy successor to Absence of Mercy. At first it did not appear as if that would be the case, as the story seemed to meander for a while. But, Burley’s managed to do it again.

Dr. Lise Shields arrives at Menaker, a correctional psychiatric facility in Maryland and becomes embroiled in a massive “cover up” – or does she? That is the question readers are left with when they finish the book. Who exactly are the victims in this story?

The plot is well conceived, but pulling this story off was no easy task. Fortunately, Burley did pull it off. So much so that one cannot be sure with any absolute certainty what did or did not happen. This brilliantly parallels the confusion evident in the minds of the mentally ill that Dr. Shields is or is not treating.

One of the main male characters has a lover, who is a suspected terrorist; the latter winds up being murdered. That’s about all one can say for certain. To go into much greater detail would create too many spoilers for prospective readers of this work.

This is a fine novel, Mr. Burley! If you can keep this going, you’ll wind up with a cult following and perhaps much more.

Well recommended.

Dave Moyer

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book will be released on February 10, 2015.

“The Forgetting Place is a deep dive into the darkest recesses of the human psyche. Surprises wait at every turn.” Lisa Unger

“Layered and evocative – an intelligent, powerful read.” Sophie Littlefield

“Will send chills down your spine. A taut psychological thriller.” Alice LaPlante, author of A Circle of Wives.

Dave Moyer is an educator and the author of Life and Life Only: A Novel.

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These Eyes

Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross (Harper Fiction, $9.99, 437 pages)

“A horrible family tragedy that may not be what it seems…”

Location, location,  location…  They say that these are the three most important factors in real estate, and on occasion location, location, location matters in fiction, also.   Take this novel, Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross (author of Reckless).   You will probably enjoy this thriller of a crime story if you’ve visited at least two of the three California locations in which the action takes place: Morro Bay (misspelled as Morrow Bay on the back cover), San Luis Obispo and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border.   Since I’ve visited all three – the first for play; the latter two for work – it was easy to visualize the scenes in this novel.

In the tale (based on something that happened in real life to the author’s family), our protagonist Jay Erlich – a New York State-based physician – learns that his nephew has apparently committed suicide by jumping off the famed 600-foot high volcanic rock in Morro Bay.   At the request of his troubled older brother Charlie, Erlich flies out to the calm, coastal community to see if what the police have reported is correct.   Early on it’s clear that someone is covering something up, as there are problems with the official story.

Charlie Erlich was once a chart-topping musician, but then he fell in with a wild group of drug users in Marin County.   And this is where the story telling goes a bit sideways.   It’s immediately obvious to the reader that Charlie was once a member of the Charles Manson Family, but here Manson is fictionalized as the “leering and wild-eyed” person known as Russell Houvanian.   [Houvanian, of course, is first imprisoned at San Quentin before being moved to Pelican Bay – just like Charles Manson.]   The author devotes page after page to recreating the events surrounding the Manson Family, but for some strange reason moves them from Ventura and Los Angeles counties to Marin and Santa Barbara counties.

I have no idea why Gross spent so much time and energy in transforming Manson into a fictional character.   But instead of adding to the story, it significantly detracts from it.   It’s as if I were to write a novel about the first Irish-American Catholic president elected in the 1960s, a character that I decide to name John McNeal.   McNeal, in my story, has a brother named Richard who happens to be the U.S. Attorney General, and another brother, Ned, who is a United States senator from Massachusetts.   It wouldn’t take long for the reader to ask the questions, “Why not just set this period novel among the Kennedys?   Why fictionalize actual events and real people?”

While the author’s credibility takes a hit with his strangely and loosely disguised historical events, the story itself is engaging.   Lives are at risk and it’s up to Doctor Erlich to become an instant, skilled criminal investigator in order to figure out which authority figures are telling the truth and which are lying to protect their own reputations.   As with the novels of David Baldacci, Joseph Finder and Michael Connelly, events speed up rapidly as the conclusion approaches, and it all ends in an almost breathless fashion.

Once you’ve finished Eyes Wide Open, you may want to check on the availability of a room at The Inn at Morro Bay.   Just make sure to be very careful if you decide to climb the famed rock of Morro Bay!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Should be read with the lights on and the door closed.   A rare and menacing psychological thriller…”   Nelson DeMille.  

Note:  Morro Bay is actually 576 feet high.   Although it’s illegal to climb it, as per Wikipedia, “every few years someone is caught trying to climb the rock.”

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Into The Great Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross (William Morrow, $25.99, 338 pages)

“A horrible family tragedy that may not be what it seems…”

Location, location, location…   They say that these are the three most important factors in real estate, and on occasion location, location, location matters in fiction, also.   Take this novel, Eyes Wide Open, by Andrew Gross (author of Reckless).   You will probably enjoy this thriller of a crime story if you’ve visited at least two of the three California locations in which the action takes place:  Morro Bay, San Luis Obispo and Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, near the California-Oregon border.   Since I’ve visited all three – the first for play; the latter two for work – it was easy to visualize the scenes in this novel.

In the tale (based on something that happened in real life to author Gross), our protagonist New York State-based physician Jay Erlich learns that his nephew has apparently committed suicide by jumping off the famed 600-foot high volcanic rock in Morro Bay.   At the request of his troubled older brother Charlie, Erlich flies out to the calm, coastal community to see if what the police have reported is correct.   Early on it’s clear that someone is covering something up, as there are problems with the offical story.

Charlie Erlich was once a chart-topping musician, but then he fell in with a wild group of drug users in Marin County.   And this is where the story telling goes a bit sideways.   It’s immediately clear to the reader that Charlie was once a member of the Charles Manson Family, but here Manson is fictionalized as the “leering and wild-eyed” person known as Russell Houvanian.   [Houvanian, of course, is first imprisoned at San Quentin before being moved to Pelican Bay – just like Charles Manson.]   The author devotes page after page to recreating the events surrounding the Manson Family, but for some strange reason moves them from Ventura and Los Angeles counties to Marin and Santa Barbara counties.

I have no idea why Gross spent so much time and energy to transforming Manson into a fictional character.   But instead of adding to the story, it significantly detracts from it.   It’s as if I were to write a novel about the first Irish-Catholic president elected in the 1960s, a character that I decide to name John McNeal.   McNeal, in my story, has a brother named Richard who happens to be the U.S. Attorney General, and another brother, Ned, who is a senator from Massachusetts.   It wouldn’t take the reader long to ask the questions, “Why not just set this period novel among the Kennedys?   Why fictionalize actual events and real people?”

While the author’s credibility takes a hit with his strangely disguised historical events, the story itself is engaging.   Lives are at risk and it’s up to Doctor Erlich to become an instant, skilled criminal investigator in order to figure out which authority figures are telling the truth and which are telling lies to protect their own reputations.   As with the novels of David Baldacci, Joseph Finder and Michael Connelly, events speed up rapidly as the conclusion approaches, and it all ends in a rather breathless fashion.

Once you’ve finished Eyes Wide Open, you may want to check on the availability of a room at The Inn at Morro Bay.   Just make sure to be very careful if you decide to climb the famed  rock of Morro Bay!

Recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Should be read with the lights on and the door closed.   A rare and menacing psychological thriller…”   Nelson DeMille

Note:   Morro Rock is actually 576-feet high.   While it’s illegal to climb it, as per Wikipedia, “every few years, someone is caught trying to climb the rock.”

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Coming Up Next…

A review of Eyes Wide Open: A Novel by Andrew Gross.

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Happenings Ten Years Time Ago

Fragile: A Novel by Lisa Unger (Broadway; $15.00; 352 pages)

“The sins of a family always fall on the daughter.”   P.F. Sloan

“She already knew the hard edges of the world, knew that life disappointed and that most people’s dreams never did come true.”   Lisa Unger

This one is a stunner.   In Fragile, author Lisa Unger tells the story of four fragile lives that are joined together by events separated by twenty years.   Unger’s genius is in plotting the story so that the reader never knows what’s coming next.

The story starts with a look-in at what appears to be a crime being committed, although the facts are not clear.   What is clear is that a young woman, Charlene, has gone missing.   She intended to run away from her sleepy community, The Hollows, in New York State in order to make music in Manhattan.   But she’s suddenly fallen off the face of the earth.

The residents of The Hollows, including the young woman’s mother and her boyfriend Ricky’s parents, are forced to revisit their memories of a high school girl named Sarah who disappeared two decades earlier.   She was found dead, mutilated; a crime to which a male classmate confessed.   But the young man who said he killed her was troubled and perhaps mentally unstable.   He went on to spend years in state prison, before he died by his own hand.

With this background we fear that Charlene has been abducted or murdered by the evil force or forces that killed Sarah.   Charlene’s mother was a classmate of Sarah’s, as was Ricky’s mother, Maggie and his police detective father.   These adults are all keeping secrets about their lives both now and at the time that Sarah was killed.

Others in the community also know things about the events surrounding the past crime, but they’re not talking.   The residents of The Hollows become frozen with the fear that they are reliving a nightmare and elect to hide rather than speak.   With little information to go on, the local police force begins to suspect Ricky’s involvement in Charlene’s disappearance.   Charlene did, after all, stand him up on the night she left home and had informed her friends about another boyfriend in New York City.

As the tale proceeds, we see that there are no perfect families in The Hollows.   The parents criticize their children for doing the very things they did when they were young, and this simply piques the desire of the young to escape as soon as they can.   The current mystery, the apparent crime that surrounds the disappearance of Charlene, will only be solved by confessions.   Because there may very well be links between what may have happened to Charlene and what happened “twenty years time ago” to Sarah.

“As she told them all about her buried memory, she felt an awe at how their separate lives were twisted and tangled, growing over and around each other…  And how the connections between them were as terribly fragile as they were indelible.”

There will be no hints here – no spoiler alerts needed – as to the fate of Charlene and Ricky, except to note that Unger convinces us that everything in life is so well-connected (if hardly explainable).   The past is, indeed, prelude.   This is a read that will stay with you.

Unique, stunning.   Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Fragile will be released as a trade paperback book on May 17, 2011.

“…filled with perfectly written sentences…”   New Mystery Reader

“A rich tapestry of psychological wounds…”   Kirkus Reviews


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Reeling in the Years

I’d Know You Anywhere: A Novel by Laura Lippman (William Morrow)

There are writers who, like certain songwriters, can be admired more than they can be enjoyed.   In the field of songwriting, the team of Walter Becker and Donald Fagen – collectively known as Steely Dan – has often been praised for their tunes steeped in irony even if their songs are more clever (more intellectual) than charmingly fun.   I kept thinking of Steely Dan and, especially, the song “Reeling in the Years” as I read this latest novel from the prolific writer Laura Lippman.

Lippman’s skills are to be recognized as she persuades a reader to turn over 370 pages of a story that does not amount to a lot.   There are two protagonists.   There’s the now-38-year-old Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped and raped and held for 39 days by Walter Bowman, who sits on death row in Virginia awaiting his execution.   Bowman is a spree-killer convicted of two murders in two states, but he may have killed as many as eight young girls.   Why he didn’t kill Eliza (then known as Elizabeth) when she was 15 is supposed to be a question that puzzles everyone.   Except that Bowman was captured after a simple traffic stop.   The notion that he might have killed Eliza had he not been taken into custody when he was seems to elude everyone here.

Although Lippman gives her readers a lot of twists and turns and feints, there’s not much drama in this crime drama, and not much thrill in this psychological thriller.   It is interesting enough, but just enough.

Eliza never comes to life, especially as she displays no anger against Bowman.   When Bowman contacts her just weeks before his scheduled death, she becomes his strangely witting accomplice without much effort.   Eliza is a character that’s simply not present in her own life:  “Her time with Walter – it existed in some odd space in her brain, which was neither memory or not memory.   It was like a story she knew about someone else.”

A character in the book, a hack writer who wrote a “fact crime” book about Bowman, complains that he’s just simply not as interesting a criminal as, say, Ted Bundy.   That’s certainly the case as we never come to know what it is that made Bowman a killer, nor how it is that this man with a said-to-be just average IQ is suddenly cunning enough to use his victim Eliza in a last-minute plan to gain his freedom.   Something key is missing here as the author admits:  “(Her) mother had long believed that Walter had experienced something particularly wounding in his youth.”

Since neither of the two characters ever becomes fully realized, it’s hard to care about whether Eliza will, in the end, forgive Walter and/or help him avoid execution.   The reader will, however, wonder why this now happily married woman is willing to risk her contented life for someone who harmed her.   Since Eliza does not know herself, she certainly will never come to know or constructively forgive her former captor.

A significant flaw in this crime drama is that the interactions with participants in the criminal justice system feel like flyovers, neither grounded nor concrete.   The lawyers seem to be portrayed more as actors (attention being given to how they look and dress) than as advisors.

In the end, this reader admires Lippman’s skills, her persistence and her success.   However, reading this novel was a bit like trying to listen to that Steely Dan song “Reeling in the Years” as it plays in another room, down the hall, too far removed to be heard clearly.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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