Puff the Magic Dragon conjures up a saccharine image, kind of like a winged Barney. A dragon named Melted Face with hide like Kevlar is more a feature of nightmares. Unfortunately for herpetologist CJ Cameron, Melted Face and his cronies have her in their sights in the rip-roaring action thriller The Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly.
CJ is flying to China. The Chinese government is sparing no expense to bring her, along with influential politicians and reporters, to premiere their nation’s newest attraction: a phenomenal zoo designed to make the Disney’s amusement empire look rinky-dink. As they arrive at the park, located in a remote no-fly zone, CJ is stunned to see Greyhound bus-sized mythical creatures soaring through the sky. The official announcement? “Welcome to Great Dragon Zoo of China.”
Like a surreal Sea World, the visit starts with the equivalent of a dolphin show. A cute handler prompts dragons through tricks, explains they were were hatched from ancient eggs buried miles beneath the earth’s crust and ends by saddling up a sweet yellow dragon and flying into the clouds. CJ, however, sees both grim intelligence and simmering resentment in the lizards’ eyes, and this public relations visit quickly turns into a blood-soaked battle for survival as hordes of angry dragons turn their captors into prey. Furiously paced and laced with reptilian scientific factoids, The Great Zoo of China is an adrenaline-charged adventure of a tale.
Missing children show up on milk cartons. What happens to missing adults whose disappearance may not trigger the same sense of urgency from law enforcement investigations? Novels The Missing Place by Sophie Littlefield and Descent by Tim Johnston combine taut suspense with a look at the family dynamics at play when an adult child vanishes.
Descent opens with Grant and Angie Courtland lazing in a Colorado hotel room bed while their son and college-bound daughter are out on an early morning mountain trail jaunt. A ringing telephone conveys the news to the parents that their Rockies summer vacation is now officially a nightmare. Sixteen-year-old Sean was found on the trail, unconscious and with a shattered leg; his older sister Caitlin has disappeared without a trace. Johnson examines the remaining Courtlands’ unique reactions to the tragedy while unraveling the mystery of Caitlin’s fate. Part family drama, part dark psychological thriller, Descent will keep the reader on tenterhooks to the end.
In The Missing Place, suburban Boston housewife Colleen Mitchell is flying to North Dakota armed only with a handful of text messages from her son Paul, who’s gone missing after he dropped out of college to work as a roughneck in the booming hydrofracking industry. Colleen ends up sharing lodgings with Shay, mother to a young man who went missing along with Paul, and the two women from opposite sides of the tracks form an uneasy alliance to search for their sons. Colleen brings her corporate lawyer husband’s financial resources to their quest while Shay brings tech savvy and street smarts, but is that sufficient to breach the cone of silence engineered by gas companies intent on guarding their bottom line? Littlefield, an Edgar Award nominee who writes for both adults and teens, deftly portrays the anguish of mothers determined to find their sons who end up uncovering some unexpected adult secrets, too.
Sometimes the Wolf: A Novel by Urban Waite is about a small town sheriff and his son. Thinking about Andy Griffith? Only if Andy is in jail for dealing drugs, Opie’s married and a deputy himself, Barney Fife is in charge and Aunt Bea doesn’t exist. In other words, this isn’t Mayberry.
Bobby Drake, deputy in Silver Lake, Washington, has a lot on his plate. He is tracking a rogue wolf through the Cascade Mountains, his marriage is strained and his father Patrick, a former Silver Lake sheriff, is newly free on parole after serving 12 years for his part in a drug smuggling ring. He is also moving in with Bobby. Add in a DEA agent who is determined to pin an unsolved murder and theft of a few hundred thousand dollars on Patrick, as well as a chilling pair of escaped convicts who are chasing after both Patrick and the money, and Bobby is stressed. Trying to understand why his father, an officer of the law, became a criminal strains the relationship between the two men to the point of breaking.
Waite’s writing is sometimes compared to Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men, with his matter-of-fact prose and tense stories which march along a seemingly inevitable path of increasing violence, creating a sense of both dread and anticipation for the reader. Loyalty and vengeance propel this father and son thriller as Sometimes the Wolf reveals that redemption can come when least expected.
In Dear Daughter, Janie Jenkins has the kind of life teenage girls like to read about in fan magazines. She’s famous for the parties she’s attended, the high-profile celebrities she’s gotten high with and the fabulous clothes she wears. Paris Hilton wishes she were Janie Jenkins. Until 16-year-old Janie sneaks into her mother’s closet, climbs into her mother’s best fashion boots and overhears a passionate argument. The next thing Janie remembers, she is covered with her mother’s blood and trying to explain this to the police.
Janie is known among her set as the girl most likely to steal your boyfriend. She may be popular in the press, but not among her peers. She is devious and her number one priority is herself. This may not be evidence of murder, but it sure gets you biased witnesses and an unsympathetic jury. Convicted of her mother’s murder, Janie spends 10 years in prison for a crime she didn’t commit. Or, did she?
Released on a technicality, Janie follows clues she’s uncovered in the prison library databases. Pursued by the vulture press and obsessed bloggers who want her to pay for her evil act, Janie assumes the identity of a nerdy historian. In her new guise, she probes the past of the tiny gold-rush town her mother grew up in, proving that even the tiniest towns can hold deadly secrets.
Elizabeth Little’s debut thriller Dear Daughter brings a completely fresh perspective to the mystery scene. Her character exhibits the raw emotion of a traumatized teenager. Instead of compassion and therapy, she receives condemnation and punishment. Isolated and alone, Janie must battle her own demons in order to unearth the truth, no matter how horrific. Fans of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and William Landay’s Defending Jacob will appreciate the fast pace and moral conundrums. Climb into your favorite easy chair, you are about to pull an all-nighter.
Shelley Coriell continues her Apostles series with The Buried, a thriller built around a deadly game of cat and mouse. “It’s cold. And dark. I can’t breathe.” That’s what prosecutor Grace Courtemanche hears when she answers a call from a young woman who claims to be buried alive. Grace finds help in the form of Theodore “Hatch” Hatcher, her ex-husband and a member of an elite team of FBI agents. As Grace and Hatch try to find the woman at the other end of the call, they soon realize that they are caught at the center of a deadly game, and this is only Round One. Coriell’s Apostles series will appeal to both thriller and romance readers. It’s a perfect read for fans of Catherine Coulter, Tami Hoag and Elizabeth Lowell.
Coriell recently answered some questions for Between the Covers readers. Learn more about the maverick FBI agents who make up the Apostles and get her secret recipe for a kale salad that will wow your family this fall.
Between the Covers: This series revolves around an elite team of FBI agents nicknamed the Apostles. Tell us a little bit about them.
Shelley Coriell: Led by Parker Lord, a legendary FBI agent now wheelchair bound, the Apostles are an elite group of FBI agents who aren’t afraid to work outside the box and at times outside the law. They take on America’s vilest criminals, using the most powerful weapons known to mankind, the human mind…and heart. They aren’t good at following rules, and every Apostle I’ve met so far has either quit or been fired from the FBI before being personally recruited by Parker for his Special Criminal Investigative Unit. Parker Lord on his team: “Apostles? There’s nothing holy about us. We’re a little maverick and a lot broken, but in the end, we get justice right.”
BTC: Each member of the team has a unique area of expertise. How do the characters’ specialties impact your approach to the story? Do you do additional research to get into the right mindset?
SC: Each Apostle’s specialty is at the heart of each story. In The Buried, Agent Hatch Hatcher is a crisis negotiator and master communicator, so his book is very much about connecting with others. The Broken, book one in the Apostles series, features a criminal profiler or “head guy”, so that book is more of a puzzling who-done-it. As an author, I love the variety and scope of story possibilities with such a team.
As for research, I enrolled in a thirteen-week citizens’ police academy before writing a single word in the Apostles series and have a retired FBI agent I turn to with agency questions. I read law enforcement textbooks and do online research. After researching online how to make and disarm bombs for book three in the Apostles series, I’m sure I’m on some kind of government watch list.
BTC: The Buried opens with a young woman who has been buried alive. You’ve admitted that this is also one of your own fears. What is it about the idea of being buried alive that makes so terrifying? Did writing The Buried help you get over your fear or did it make it worse?
SC: Some people have anxiety dreams about forgetting their locker combinations or showing up for work without any pants. Growing up, I took anxiety dreams to the extreme and had reoccurring nightmares about being buried alive. I was terrified of not being able to breathe, perhaps because when it comes to human needs, air is primal and universal, even more so than food and water when looking at the amount of time we can live while being deprived of each.
While I no longer have dreams of being buried alive, this book certainly made me more cognizant of and grateful for the mundane task of breathing. While writing The Buried I woke up one night and was acutely aware of my husband breathing next to me. I remember placing my hand on his chest and feeling his chest rise. It was a surprisingly powerful but peaceful moment for me.
BTC: One of my favorite characters in this novel is Allegheny Blue, a very determined elderly hound who Grace frequently claims is “not her dog.” Was he inspired by any real canines in your life?
SC: Both Allegheny Blue and Ida Red were snatched straight from my childhood. My dad, an avid hunter and outdoorsman, raised hounds, and Blue, his 120-pound blue tick hound with paws the size of salad plates was a family favorite. Blue had a beautiful bellow, low and melodic, and I used to sneak him inside the house on cold nights and let him sleep by the fireplace. The bear-grease concoction Grace uses to doctor the pads of Blue’s torn paws is the same ointment my dad made for his dogs.
BTC: What’s next for the Apostles?
SC: Evie’s story, The Blind, which comes out in the summer of 2015. Evie Jimenez is the Apostles’ bombs and weapons specialist. She’s fiery, passionate and not afraid of things that go boom. In The Blind Evie travels to the gritty, eclectic Arts District of downtown Los Angeles where she teams up with a buttoned-up billionaire/art philanthropist to track down a serial bomber who uses bombs and live models to create masterful art that lives...and dies.
BTC: What is the best book you’ve read recently? What authors are on your personal must-read list?
SC: Jandy Nelson’s young adult novel, I’ll Give You the Sun. It’s the only book I read this year where I ceased being an author studying the craft of writing and simply lost myself in a good story. These days I read a good deal of narrative nonfiction, but in the fiction world, I like most authors named Sarah. Strange but true. I’m a huge fan of Sarah Dunant, Sarah Addison Allen and Sarah Dessen. Beyond the Sarahs, my go-to authors are Alice Hoffman, Lisa Gardner, Elizabeth Wein, Mary Pearson, Jeffery Deaver and Harlan Coben.
BTC: You’re a self-proclaimed foodie and a kale aficionado. Do you have a go-to kale dish to convert disbelievers?
SC: Even those with hardened hearts have fallen for my Fall Kale Salad. The secret is massaging raw kale with olive oil before adding the vinaigrette. It mellows the kale, which allows the other flavors to shine. I love serving this dish for the holidays. It’s so colorful and bursting with fall flavors.
Shelley Coriell's Fall Kale Salad
3-4 side servings
3 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
2 shallots, chopped
3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 cup dried cranberries
2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
2 tsp. honey or agave nectar
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste
1 bunch kale, thinly sliced
1/4 cup roasted and salted pepitas
1/4 cup goat cheese
Heat two tablespoons olive oil and sauté shallots until soft. Add garlic, cranberries, red wine vinegar, honey and lemon juice and heat through.
Put kale into large bowl and massage with remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Add shallot mixture to kale along with pepitas. Top with crumbled goat cheese.
When Amy Elliott Dunne goes missing on the day of her fifth wedding anniversary, suspicion immediately falls on her husband Nick. Everyone knows that in these cases it’s always the husband, right? With unpredictable characters and a plot worthy of Hitchcock, Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestselling novel Gone Girl has captivated audiences since it was published in 2012, and it’s gaining a whole new audience as a film based on the novel comes to theaters on October 3. The movie, starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Casey Wilson and Tyler Perry, is already one of the most buzzed about of the year, and its haunting trailer makes it clear why.
Reports about changes in the plot and the ending of the movie have worried fans. While Flynn told Entertainment Weekly, “There was something thrilling about taking this piece of work that I’d spent about two years painstakingly putting together with all its eight million LEGO pieces and take a hammer to it and bash it apart and reassemble it into a movie” earlier this year, fans of the book shouldn’t be worried. She later assured readers that “the mood, tone and spirit of the book are very much intact. I've been very involved in the film and loved it.” We’ll all just have to wait and see.
By this point, many readers have already raced through Gone Girl. Here are a few dark and twisty thrillers for readers who enjoyed it. Mary Kubica’s debut thriller The Good Girl, about the abduction of the 24-year-old daughter of a prominent Chicago family, is a page-turner with plenty of plot twists and turns. A.S.A. Harrison’s The Silent Wife is a gripping psychological thriller about the dissolution of a couple’s relationship. Sabine Durrant’s Under Your Skin is a dark thrill-ride featuring a potentially unreliable narrator, a troubled marriage and a murder case playing out in the media. For more suggestions, check out this list of 10 Gone Girl readalikes to tide you over until the movie’s release.
Everything changed for Harry Dresden, Chicago's only professional wizard, when he sold his services to Mab, Queen of the Fairies, to save his daughter. He's been not quite dead, trapped in Fairy politics and sent on a wide variety of suicide missions. That was the easy part. Nicodemus, Knight of the Blackened Denarius and one of the cruelest enemies Dresden has ever faced is back in town, planning a major heist. And Harry's stuck working for him.
By turns Skin Game by Jim Butcher is a ripping heist novel, a hilariously goofy urban fantasy, with enough touching moments to give real weight. Butcher has won the ability to write gripping, fun and magical crime novels, and he's fought for that ability in this very series. It's not recommended to start with Skin Game if you're going to read the Dresden Files series because too much of the book is dependent on things that have come before. I don't recommend beginning at the first book either, because Butcher didn't really find his footing until the third. Start with the third book, Grave Peril, because the Dresden Files are a journey. Characters grow, wrestle with themselves, face up to things they don't want to deal with. There's a whole lot Dresden doesn't want to deal with, from dragging his friends into danger to stronger and stronger deals with dangerous and inhuman powers. Life has a tendency to get a whole lot bigger than the people living in the Dresdenverse.
If this were a movie, it would be a summer tent pole, a certified blockbuster. It has huge, explosive action, romance, comedy, true love, and cute animals. There are double and triple crosses and rivalries that zoom along. It would be better than anything you're going to see in the theater this year. But it gets even better if you haven't read the rest of the Dresden Files, because now you have an entire book series that's better than anything you're going to see in the theater, and it's still building up to even bigger things.
Local award-winning author and BCPL card holder Dan Fesperman has come out with a new thriller available on August 12, and gave Between the Covers the inside scoop. In his latest psychological military thriller Unmanned, Fesperman explores the domain of drone warfare.
Darwin Cole served his country as an accomplished pilot until he was sequestered to operate drones. As a pilot Cole found himself slightly removed from the tangible repercussions of war and was surprised to learn that the opposite is true with manning a drone. It’s this aspect that tears him apart when a crucial mission goes amiss and innocent people die, but who can be blamed for the error when the truth is camouflaged? Cole teams up with unlikely allies to find out what actually happened on that infamous day.
Read on to find out more about Dan Fesperman and his latest novel.
Between the Covers: Drone technology plays a major role in Unmanned. I imagine you did a lot of research on the subject. How much of what is in the book is the military actually using? What is your personal opinion about how drones are used by the military?
Dan Fesperman: Well, all of the military drones I mention – Predator, Reaper, Global Hawk – they’re out there and flying. As for the experimental drones that pop up later in the book – the ones the size of insects, flying in swarms; the ultra-fast models; the ones with huge wingspans – I do know that drones like those have been tested by the military. If anything, I’ve probably underestimated their capabilities, if only because the technology is advancing at such a dizzying rate. I don’t object, per se, to the use of drones in warfare. Hey, in some cases they actually reduce the likelihood of civilian casualties, and there’s no doubt that their reconnaissance capabilities have saved plenty of soldiers’ lives. But it does make me a little queasy to think that we might be embracing certain applications of drone technology without fully thinking them through, which is always a dangerous proposition. Also, the more that you turn combat into a remote-control exercise, the more you tend to dehumanize it, for both predator and prey.
BTC: There is a large focus on the military and government agencies; did you work with any military personnel for authenticity?
DF: I interviewed several Air Force pilots, sensors and other officers associated with drone squadrons out at Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas. One pilot-sensor team was particularly helpful, especially in describing what an eerie job it could be, peering down at a small village for hours and even days on end, and then, possibly, having to target one of the houses. They established a degree of intimacy and familiarity with these places which soldiers almost never do. It personalized their potential targets even as the technological nature of the relationship – they were 7,000 miles and nine time zones apart! – made the relationship oddly impersonal. As for the intelligence side, I’ve talked with plenty of ex-CIA people in the course of my research for other projects, so I already had a feel for the way those jobs work.
BTC: Cole and Barbara are struggling with some of the things they saw while working in war-torn countries. Did your own travels in similar situations prompt you to include this aspect in the novel?
DF: Yes. Those kinds of places – Afghanistan, the Balkans, the Middle East – always leave you with vivid and sometimes haunting memories. They pop up later in your dreams, and at unexpected moments. And while I’ve never experienced anything quite as traumatic as what Barb endured, I got enough of a taste of it, as did many of my colleagues, to be able to write about it with some authenticity.
BTC: You picked Maryland as the setting for a large portion of the book. Is this because you reside in Maryland or because of its proximity to D.C.?
DF: Both, really. And it was fun, for a change, to write from a few settings on my home turf. In writing and researching my other books, I’d often worked hard to establish enough comfort with a foreign setting to be able to write about it with any authority. In the Baltimore and Maryland scenes, that came easier.
BTC: Was it a difficult transition to go from journalist to novelist?
DF: Not really. The hardest part was getting used to the idea that you’re in command of this world you’ve created, instead of being chained to the “facts” gleaned from interviews and observations. You have to grow accustomed to the idea of that, instead of checking and double-checking your notebook. You can control even the smallest of details. If you’re setting your book in an actual time and place you still want to be true to the spirit of that time and place, but the characters belong to you. In journalism it never works that way.
BTC: Several of your books are award winners in the area of crime writing and thrillers. Have you ever considered writing in a different genre?
DF: The bounds of those genres have been stretched so far and wide by now that I’ve never felt the least bit restricted or confined. You can pretty much write about any era, in any location, with any assortment of characters. And when you get right down to it, genre or non-genre, any fiction is going to concern itself mostly with conflict and personality, identity and betrayal. My only rule of thumb is to try and write the kind of book that I’d like to read.
BTC: What book would you recommend to a reader who just finished Unmanned and loved it?
DF: Odd as it might sound, the first work of a kindred spirit that comes to mind is a wonderful German film from 2006, The Lives of Others. Essentially it’s a spy film about an extended and careful surveillance of a single suspect, but what it’s really about is how that sort of invasive and prying work affects those who do it for a living. It’s beautifully and artfully crafted, with some brilliant writing. Of my own books, I’d recommend The Warlord’s Son, mostly because its setting in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region gives you a much more intimate look at the insular little worlds that all those drone pilots can only watch from afar.
Chris Pavone’s second book The Accident seems like an unlikely mash-up at first blush, but, in fact, it is a perfect blend of two worlds that rarely crossover. One world is the rapidly collapsing world of publishing and the other is the treacherous world of international espionage. The point where they connect is a globe-spanning multimedia empire, Wolf Media, whose founder committed a horrible crime. A memoir has surfaced exposing the founder's many crimes written by an anonymous yet highly accurate source. As the manuscript winds its way through the publishing world, it goes viral in the traditional sense of the word, it spreads unchecked and brings death to everyone who reads it.
Pavone’s sophomore outing works for a number of reasons. You quickly see that the world of espionage and publishing are natural counterpoints. People in those fields work hand-in-hand with the powerful and influential, but they lack the wealth, resources and fame of the same. They are Cinderella at the ball, allowed to see the spectacle, but living lives much separated from it. Secondly, Wolf Media and its real life counterparts have had a huge impact on publishing and wield unprecedented influence on international affairs. Pavone tackles this idea head-on, showing Wolf Media as both the possible savior and destroyer of traditional publishing, while at the same time being manipulated by — and sometimes manipulator of — intelligence agencies.
Pavone, a longtime veteran of the publishing industry, provides keen insight into modern publishing, an industry that seems to be living from one quarterly balance sheet to the next. Just as interesting is his depiction of a post 9/11 U.S. intelligence apparatus that is so focused on one particular region and threat that an off-the-books intelligence operation can operate without oversight and for the benefit of corporate partners.
The Accident is much like the David Mamet film The Spanish Prisoner. Each time you think you know where the story is going, you will be surprised, right up to the final shocking revelations. Pavone has crafted a unique tale of intrigue, espionage and murder in our modern world where spies and secrets are far less the provenance of nations than powerful multinational corporations.
We asked some popular thriller authors what books kept them up all night. Their responses include a host of reading suggestions that will help you build the perfect summer reading list.
Chris Pavone, author of The Accident, recommends Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch. He writes, “I couldn't put down Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, which I suspect no one is referring to as a thriller, despite its tremendously thrilling elements. I think it's a great book in every way, but in particular I found it heartbreakingly beautiful on the sentence level–one wonderful sentence after another after another, for nearly 800 pages–and filled with moments of truth and insight. Then, of course, there's the terrorist bombing and the stolen priceless painting and drug deals and death by gunshot and hiding out in an Amsterdam hotel. How can you go to sleep with this type of stuff going on?”
Brad Meltzer couldn’t put down Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, which he says is “[m]ore history, less thriller, but had me to my soul.” The novel, which has been a favorite of readers since its publication in 2006, was also recently made into a movie.
M. J. Rose, co-president of International Thriller Writers and author of The Collector of Dying Breaths, shared two of her favorite authors. “Two authors guaranteed to keep me up all night are Lee Child and Steve Berry – they both have new books coming out soon [that are] sure to be as un-put-downable as the last.” Find Child’s Personal: A Jack Reacher Novel (available to be placed on hold) and Berry’s The Lincoln Myth in BCPL's catalog. Rose continues, “Both of them are consummate professionals who never miss a chance to stop a chapter with a cliffhanger and get their characters into what seem like impossible situations. These guys can write!”
Matthew Quirk, whose new novel The Directive was just published, recommends a classic. “I recently re-read Marathon Man by William Goldman and couldn't put it down. It has a great voice and unforgettable scenes (you'll never look at a dentist the same way again). It taught me so much about what drives a thriller: relentless threats to your protagonist as you ratchet up the stakes.”