Category Archives: suspense

Review: Cruise


Cruise: A Thriller
by Suzanne Vermeer
Published by Open Road Integrated Media
238 pages
Genre: mystery, thriller
3.5 / 5


It’s all fun and games on a cruise ship until someone drowns.

Heleen and Frank, a Norwegian couple, are celebrating their anniversary with a European cruise. They’ve been together for seventeen years, most of them contented. Yes, there have been struggles, but they give each other the freedom they need. Frank works in travel and as such is away from home a lot, and Heleen is understanding. She has her own career, and she enjoys the autonomy their relationship provides.

In a twist of dramatic irony, we know – but Heleen does not – that Frank has been planning an escape. So when he mysteriously disappears, we sense that he will return one way or another.

Heleen is beside herself over her husband’s supposed death, and she returns home to grieve. But then strange things start happening. First, there is an insurance settlement in the name of a stranger living in France. Then there are other, odder questions.

Determined to understand what happened, Heleen heads to France to find out what Frank has been up to. Along the way, she becomes convinced that the Frank she loved and married is not the Frank she thought was true. The Frank who disappeared? That’s a whole other Frank.

There are twists and turns galore in this book. Just when you think it’s ending, it keeps going. And that is my one complaint: there is almost too much of the thriller and too little of the mystery. We never quite understand Frank’s motivations, nor do we ever quite understand why he and Heleen stayed together for as long as they did. You get the sense that they truly loved each other, which makes Frank’s decisions a bit of a head scratcher.

Still, Vermeer writes a book that will keep you hooked. Heleen is as admirable a character as you’ll find. She has spunk, if not a little innocence, and although her determination to suss out what happened to her husband leads her down one dangerous path after another, she never quits. The titular cruise becomes more about Heleen’s journey across unchartered waters as it does about the actual ship. As much as she learns about Frank, she learns even more about who she really is.


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Blog Tour: Natchez Burning

Natchez BurningNatchez Burning
by Greg Iles
Published by William Morrow
800 pages
Genre: mystery; suspense; thriller; literature 
4.5 / 5


Do not – I repeat, DO NOT – begin this book unless you have some time to read it. For one thing, it clocks in at a whopping 800 pages. And for another, far more important, reason, it is nearly impossible to put down.

The first of a planned trilogy, Natchez Burning introduces us to Penn Cage, a mid-forties mayor of Natchez, Mississippi, whose father, revered local doctor Tom Cage, has been arrested for murdering Viola, a former nurse of his.

The story unfolds through the eyes of quite a few characters, including Tom Cage, Caitlin (Penn’s newspaper publisher fiancee), and a slew of bad guys. Only Penn speaks to us in first person, which makes him the character we get to know the best. Then again, even at 800 pages, it’s difficult to know all the characters in this book terribly well.

There are two story lines here: the present tale, centered around Tom Cage’s murder arrest, and the ’60s saga, in which a KKK splinter group ruled Natchez with cruelty, prejudice, and no small amount of viciousness. Led by Brody Royal, this killer crew targeted anyone who threatened the white status quo, regardless of skin color or socioeconomic status.

The stories converge when Tom is arrested, and as Penn slowly discovers the links between his father and Brody Royal’s organization, he also begins to grasp the extent of Natchez’s violent history.

Throughout the sprawling story lines, characters, plots and subplots, there is one thread that binds it all together: a man’s coming to terms with the knowledge that his father is not the stuff of super hero comic books, but rather a flawed, complex man. It is this simple, age-old truism that makes this book so compelling and riveting. We hold our breaths as Penn uncovers one secret after another, hoping – along with him – that his father is the man we think he is. When we are told at one point that Tom is exhausted from carrying the burden of other’s expectations, we empathize with him, even as we hope those expectations are deserved.

As much as I enjoyed this book, though, I do have some issues with it, namely its ending. Iles leaves several questions unanswered, which almost feels cheap and underhanded considering we just spent nearly 800 pages engaging with his characters. I cannot tell you how frustrating the ending is.

Some of the characters are straight out of Central Casting for bigoted bad guys, and their one-dimensionality stands in stark contrast to how well developed other characters are.

Still, though, this is one heck of a fantastic read. I can’t wait for the next one.

Links:Greg Iles

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Northwest Corner

Northwest Corner
John Burnham Schwartz
Published by Random House
304 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 / 5 cupcakes

Are we destined to repeat our parents’ mistakes?

That is a central question, if not THE central question, in Northwest Corner. The sequel to Reservation Road (which I had not read, nor did I even realize that this was a sequel until I read the interview with John Burnham Schwartz at the end of the book), Northwest Corner picks up twelve years after Dwight Arno went to prison for accidentally killing a young boy. In Dwight’s case, it was the old refrain: it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. He served less than three years in prison, after which he moved from Connecticut to California.

Dwight’s post-prison life is simple: he’s fifty, works at a sporting goods store, lives alone, and occasionally dates Penny, a single mother. Yet for all the simplicity of that day-to-day routine, the fact remains that Dwight lives across the country from Sam, with whom he has had no contact since he turned himself in to the police a dozen years ago. We learn that he has had very sporadic contact with Ruth, Sam’s mother and Dwight’s ex-wife.

So imagine Dwight’s surprise when Sam shows up in California. Sam, you see, is in a bit of trouble. After a disastrous outing in a college baseball game, he gets into a bar fight, hits his opponent with an aluminum bat, and sends said opponent to the hospital. He goes, then, to the one person who might understand him.

Except – and here is where this book gets a wee bit frustrating – Sam says nothing. He never talks to Dwight, never discusses anything. Not his anger at being abandoned, not his anger at his father’s previous treatment of his mother, not his fear that the kid in the hospital might not recover. Not his terror that he has become his father.

Yet as we discover, that reticence is very much the man Sam Arno has become. It frustrates us – as it certainly frustrates Dwight – but John Burnham Schwartz is unrelenting with Sam’s depiction. We alternately want to huge him and shake him. The same with Dwight, as a matter of fact. You want him to connect with his son, but at the same time, you are furious that his contact with his boy for twelve years consists of little more than a birthday card with a check. There were no visits east. There were no phone calls. What does Dwight expect?

The suspense of what will become of Sam’s legal problems takes a secondary role to what will become of Sam and Dwight, and even Ruth, Penny and Emma, the sister of the boy Dwight killed. Can they recover? Can they survive the continual assaults on their emotional well-being? Can they be the people they want to be?

As Dwight observes:

To build a solid, lasting bridge between two people, let alone a father and son with a history like ours, is a mighty human endeavor, and to sit here and think I might be able to accomplish it alone, with no glue, a few pickup sticks, and a dollop of spit, is nothing short of hubris. And hubris, the Greeks tell us, will see you dead. The robed chorus chanting your name until, in the last act, they bury and forget you.

Not quite the picture of paternal optimism, is he?

Told from the perspectives of Dwight, Sam, Ruth, Penny and Emma, we get to see how each of them thinks and feels about what happens to them. Emma and Penny get short shrift, Penny especially. While I liked Penny and was interested in what she was going through, I either wanted more or none at all. As it is, she seems sort of thrown in there to have the point of view of someone with no connection to the crimes in Connecticut. Emma is intriguing and baffling. Her feelings about something change completely, or so we’re told, yet we don’t really know why. Or if they really did.

But boy is this a good book. I enjoyed it tremendously, and now I want to go read Reservation Road. All of these characters have flaws, but they all desperately want to feel safe and hopeful. You will want them to as well.

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One Breath Away

One Breath Away
Heather Gudenkauf
Published by Harlequin MIRA
384 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 / 5 cupcakes

Before you begin this book, make sure you have a few hours free from any distractions. Take the phone off the hook, send the kids outside, and lock yourself in your room. You will not be able to stop reading until the last page.

Broken Branch, Iowa, finds itself in the grip of a Columbine-type nightmare. A gunman has taken over the school – it houses all the students in the community, kindergarten through high school – and no one knows why. They don’t even know who he is. One thing they are certain about is that they are, as the title tells us, one breath away from rescue or tragedy.

Heather Gudenkauf tells the story from several points of view. Holly Baker has two children at the school, but if it wasn’t for a disaster of her own, those kids would be home in Arizona with her. As it is, Holly had to send them, much against her will, to her parents while Holly heals. Her father, Will, provides the sole male pair of eyes through which we get the story. With his wife and daughter in Arizona, the caring of his grandchildren falls to him. He is determined to help them and Holly. Augie Baker is Holly’s thirteen-year-old daughter, and she is full of all of the angst and attitude of a thirteen-year-old. Her soft spot, though, is her brother, P.J., and when she discovers that the gunman is in P.J.’s classroom, she knows she must help her brother. P.J.’s teacher, Evie Oliver, tries desperately to help her charges while dealing with the gunman. Her mantra to herself is that she will save them; she will not be a person who sits and does nothing. The final point of view comes from Meg Barrett, a police officer whose daughter Maria is one of Evie Oliver’s students. Fortunately, Maria is not at school that day, but Meg fears a personal connection to the gunman nonetheless.

This is a tightly wound, gripping thriller that does not let go of you until its very last words. Who is the gunman? Why does he take the school hostage? What will happen to Holly and her children? To Will? Can Evie Oliver save the day? And Meg. Can she rescue the children and prevent casualties?

As we go through the hours of the hostage situation, Gudenkauf fills us in on each character’s background. We find out about Holly’s marriage and some of the shenanigans she was up to before the accident that landed her in the hospital. (Holly, by the way, is very unlikeable. Very.) We see Will’s regrets, hurt and determination. We are in Meg’s head, as she reflects on her own marriage and Maria. We understand why Augie is so focused on saving her brother, just as we understand Evie’s strength through the prism of her life. By the time the book is over, we feel a kinship with the characters and want them to be okay.

And that’s what makes this book so good: the characters, and not just the five who tell us the story. All of them are wonderfully crafted, whether they are schoolchildren, a diner owner or Meg’s fellow police officers. This hostage taking is not limited to the school, but to the community as well. Gudenkauf does an excellent job of creating a suspenseful atmosphere that affects everyone – characters and readers.

The only problem in this otherwise excellently written book is the bad guy. His rationale for doing what he did requires a leap on our part. We understand his anger and desperation, but we question whether it was enough to provoke him into such an extreme reaction. That’s the part that rang hollow to me.

Even so, this is a terrific book. But when you read it, please don’t make the mistake I did and start it about an hour before you plan to go to bed. Unless, of course, you want to be up all night.

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Final Crossing

Final Crossing
Carter Wilson
Published by Vantage Point
320 pages
Available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.
4 out of 5 cupcakes

Hold on to your bra straps and belt buckles, kids, because Final Crossing might just cause you to lose your brassieres and britches.

Jonas Osbourne is a retired Army Ranger, currently working for a revered Senator. The subject of political speculation himself, Jonas has no small measure of power in Washington, and other than being recently dumped by a girlfriend, his life is running along without much drama. But then he nearly gets run over by a Chevy Impala, and he learns that a man he served with in Somalia and thought was dead – and who tried to kill him, after beheading a baby and chopping the ear off of a little girl – not only is alive, but crucifying people. And that’s when Jonas’s life gets a little more rambunctious.

Rudiger Sonman (there is a reason for that last name, and you will understand it when you read the book) remembers Jonas from Somalia, and he remembers the crimes he committed. But he believes he is God’s agent, sent to find The One. He crucifies and waits three days, believing each time that he found The One. Jonas, however, presents a problem, and Rudiger likes to eliminate problems.

Fortunately for Jonas, Anne Deneuve, an intuitive medium who works for the FBI, is around to help him. And by “help,” I mean professional AND personally assist. Jonas is not an easy man to love; in fact, Anne herself calls him an ass on more than one occasion. Yet we can see that he is lovable, and we can see why Anne is drawn to him.

As Rudiger continues his hunt for The One, Jonas and Anne must try to outwit him. And that’s where the action portion of the festivities comes into play. There is a LOT of action in this book, some of it gruesome but all of it nerve wracking and thrilling. Carter Wilson knows how to create tension in a scene, and he also knows when his readers need a little break. He peppers the book with witty throw-away lines – “He swerved behind a Fiat (who the hell drives a Fiat?) …” – and draws a fantastic character in Jonas Osbourne, a man whose political life may not give him all that he needs.

Yet there was something connecting both events. Jonas realized in both of his near-death moments, they were the only times Jonas felt truly and utterly alive. It was something beyond the adrenaline rush. Beyond the fear. His mere survival buttressed his ego, telling him he survived for a reason. That, despite all his success in life, he was meant for something more.

Anne sees it, too. She asks him if he has changed since his accident, if perhaps he has a hero complex. Jonas isn’t so sure. He doesn’t really want to save people, yet he does feel as if he must. He believes – he knows – he must find Sonman.

This is an engrossing, entertaining thriller of a book, with a little smidge of romance thrown in. Carter Wilson writes snappy dialogue (although I hate that phrase – “snappy dialogue” – because it sounds like something you would say about His Girl Friday or The Gilmore Girls) and crafts a compelling mystery.

The bad news is that Jonas’s story ends after 300 pages or so. The good news is that my Spidey Sense says there is a sequel to come.

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White Lies

One teeny little fib. It’s no big deal, right? You pick up a hitchhiker during a torrential downpour, and even though he doesn’t say anything threatening and even though he doesn’t do anything threatening, you still just want to get him out of your car. So you lie. You say you’re getting off at the next exit, 30 miles from your true destination.

No big deal, right?

Oh, it most certainly is a big deal in Jeremy Bates’ White Lies, in which Katrina Burton’s little white lie snowballs into a web of disaster and near total destruction.

On her way to a new teaching job at Cascade High School in a community about an hour away from Seattle, Katrina spots what appears to be a young man hitchhiking amidst rain and lightning. She gives in to a feeling of guilt and pulls over. Zach, the hitcher, makes Katrina uncomfortable, and he’s clearly drunk. So when he asks where she’s going, she lies.

And then on Katrina’s first day of work, she sees Zach. He is a teacher at the same school, and, in a fit of pique, he calls her on her lie. Meanwhile, Katrina meets a hot, seductive stranger, and before she knows it, one lie has led to another and to another, and we readers are in for quite the ride.

Part of Katrina’s problem is that she cares about making a good impression on her fellow faculty members.

She showered, ate an apple, then drove to Cascade High School. No who-the-hell-are-you? looks today. Most of the students had likely seen her around the hallways yesterday. Even if they hadn’t, students talk, and she would have been the subject. As she approached the English Department, she had a prickling feeling she was going to walk in to all the teachers gossiping about her party, asking for directions, what they should bring, spreading the word until soon the whole school would know about it. That didn’t happen. In fact, no one mentioned anything from Ducks & Drakes at all. At noon in the faculty lounge – a Spartan place dominated by Formica tables and chairs – she was sure Monica or Big Bob or even Helen, the art teacher, a chatterbox without a lid, was going to light a conversation that would ignite a discussion. No one did … Regardless, it seemed what happened outside of school, stayed outside of school. Katrina was fine with that. Just fine indeed.

It is this need of Katrina’s to fit in – to leave a good impression and to create a new home for herself, two years after her fiance died and over a decade after the death of her parents. In trying to protect herself, she makes a mistake. She tells a little lie.

Jeremy Bates writes a very suspenseful, edge-of-your-seat story in White Lies. And it is very action packed, despite a peaceful, nearly amiable start. I thought this book would be about something it is not; Bates surprised me with the direction this took. I had suspicions about the bad guy, but I had no idea he would turn out to be as bad as he was.

I enjoy a good mystery and suspense, and White Lies gives you both, almost to the point of exhaustion.

Published by Oceanview Publishing and available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.

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Fifteen Digits

The problem with reviewing a book like Fifteen Digits, by Nick Santora, is figuring out how to tell you about it without giving away anything.

Let’s start with the basic plot: Rich Mauro, in his mid-twenties, finally catches a break when he gets a job in the printing room at a Manhattan law firm. Rich’s goal is to move up to an office, becoming an actual attorney at the firm. But first he needs to get through undergrad, then law school. Even with the firm’s tuition help, Rich is looking at a mountain of bills.

Enter seedy and unsavory Jason Spade (a good last name, by the way, because this guy is nothing if not an ardent digger into the underbelly of life), who presents Rich with an offer he can’t refuse. Jason proposes that Rich, along with three of his fellow “Printers”, take the info they glean from the documents that pass through the printing room and use it to their financial advantage.

It will not go well.

We know it won’t go well because – and this is my one complaint – Santora tells us REPEATEDLY that it will not go well. At the end of nearly every one of the first dozen or so chapters, we are told that Bad Things will happen. For example, very early on:

After it all went down, to the ill informed, it appeared that it happened because of money. But to those who were involved in it, to the guys who were so deep in the mess that it covered their mouths and pushed up into their nostrils, they understood that it all happened for love – love that was pure and real or love that had never been there to begin with, but love nonetheless. 

It drives me nuts. I’m all for foreshadowing, but this is a bit heavy handed, non? But I’m willing to forgive this because the book is so entertaining and otherwise well written.

Santora grabs you with his characters. For instance, Vicellous Green became a quick favorite.

Vice was a legend in East New York for not once but twice getting the cops to let him go just by being funny. No guns, no running, no weapon but his humor. The first time it happened, a couple of badges from the Seventy-Fifth Precinct had nailed Vice as he was climbing over the back fence of an electronics store he had just robbed. Earlier that day, Mr. Singhal, the owner of the business, told Vice in a heavy Indian accent and in no uncertain terms to get “his stick fingers and poor black country ass” out of his store, that his store was for “paying customers, not welfare babies.” The ironic thing was, Vice actually had money that day and wasn’t planning on lifting anything – granted, he had lifted the money from the handbag of a woman sitting next to him on the bus, but he had money nonetheless, and Vice was pissed because there was no reason for Mr. Singhal to embarrass him in front of the fine young ladies who were there shopping for iPods. So Vice struck back he only way he knew how – he robbed the bastard.

 That’s good stuff! It makes you want to read more, doesn’t it? You will get so close to these characters. Boy, did I want Rich to succeed, even if success meant committing crimes. I wanted him and his girlfriend Elyse to make it work and to be together. I wanted Vice to continue to take care of his family and for Dylan to take care of his. I wanted Eddie to find love. Now, I admit to wanting Jason to get his ass kicked. Some of those wishes came true, others not so much. There were parts of this roller coaster that kind of made me sad.

Fifteen Digits is entertaining, and it is a page-turner. Do not start this unless you are ready to commit time to it, because you won’t want to put it down.

Published by Little, Brown & Company and available on
Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.


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