Two Nights in Lisbon, by Chris Pavone*****

“Once first blood is drawn, sharks make quick work.”

Chris Pavone (Puh-vo-KNEE) writes the best thrillers around. I read his second novel, The Accident, in 2015, thanks to the First Reads program on Goodreads, and I liked it so well that I ferreted out a copy of his debut thriller, The Expats at my favorite used bookstore. I’ve read and reviewed everything he’s published since then, and I’ll tell you right now, Two Nights in Lisbon is his best.

My thanks go to Net Galley; Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux; and Macmillan Audio for the review copies. This book will be available to the public May 24, 2022.

The beginning doesn’t impress me much; a couple is in Portugal and he leaves before she gets up; says he’ll be right back; and he disappears. In real life this would be a big deal, but in a thriller, it feels almost generic (though it actually isn’t.)  Ariel—the stranded wife—is beside herself with worry, and she goes to the police and to the U.S. Embassy, but they all blow her off. It hasn’t been 24 hours yet, there’s no sign of foul play, and face it honey, sometimes husbands wander. She carries on until we’re a quarter of the way into the book, and this part of it could probably stand to be tightened up some. But this story draws the full five stars from me, because after this, Pavone makes up for it, and more.

Next comes the ransom demand. Nameless, faceless baddies contact her. They have her husband; they want three million dollars, and they want it fast.

I won’t spoil the plot for you, but I’ll say this much: this plot is original, and as thrillers go, also plausible. There’s never a moment where I stop believing. And there’s a wonderfully satisfying measure of Karma attached at the end.

The thing that makes me love this author so hard, and that is particularly strong this time around, is his deep, consistent respect for women. In this era of MeToo and mansplaining, it takes a lot of chutzpah for a man to write a female protagonist, and what’s more, he includes a rape scene, which I trust no man for EVER, except for Pavone right here right now. He tells it the way a woman would tell it, and—all you other male authors out there, listen up—there’s not one moment where the assault feels even a tiny bit sexy. And so, at the beginning of this particular scene I tensed, waited to be outraged, or disappointed, or whatever—and then relaxed, because he gets it. This guy gets it.

Ariel makes the occasional small mistake, but no large ones. She is intelligent, organized, and capable of looking out for herself, even in a foreign country where she doesn’t speak the language. The reveal at the end makes me do a fist pump. Yesss.

The pace never flags after the first quarter, and there are occasional moments that make me guffaw. This is a story that brooks no tolerance of the wealthy, the elite, the entitled.

I received both the audio and digital review copies, and so I alternated the two, although I listened the majority of the time, backtracking for quotes and other salient details for the purpose of this review. January LaVoy is our narrator, and she does an outstanding job. You can’t go wrong with either version, but I would give the edge to the audio version, which is immensely entertaining.

Highly recommended.

I’ll Be You, by Janelle Brown***

Janelle Brown has written several successful novels, among them Watch Me Disappear and Pretty Things, both of which I read and reviewed; I rated both five stars. So I was greatly looking forward to I’ll Be You, anticipating the same sort of page turner I associate with this writer. Sadly, that’s not what I found. Though it has some nice moments, the pacing doesn’t measure up, and the whole thing is burdened with trite story elements and devices.

Nevertheless, my thanks go to Random House and Net Galley for the review copy. This book will be available to the public April 26, 2022.

The premise: Samantha and Elli are twins, and they grow up in Southern California as child actors, with the sort of rabid fan base that makes it hard to go out in public. Sam loves acting, but Elli doesn’t, and as they grow up, Elli leaves it all behind, attends college, then marries a successful career man and buys a home in the ‘burbs. They can’t have children of their own, but adopt Charlotte, who is now two.

Samantha discovers the horrible truth, that her skills were good enough when she was a child actor; twins are popular in the industry, because child labor laws prohibit any child from working more than half a day. Identical twins can each work a half day, and so filming can take place all day. Once she is grown and looking for a single, adult career, however, she finds roles hard to come by. The drug habit she’s developed as an adolescent burgeons into something larger, more horrible, and she’s been in and out of clinics ever since, sometimes on her sister’s dime.

Now Elli has taken off and left Charlotte with their mother, who is having trouble keeping up. Mom calls Sam, figuring that helping care for Charlotte is the very least that Sam owes their family. And Sam comes. Soon it becomes clear to Sam that Elli isn’t just off on a weekend retreat, but has been absorbed into a cult; in order to save her sister, she has to (yeah, this again) pretend to be her. Meanwhile, Mom is no help whatsoever, caught in a combination of denial and family roles, in which Elli is the good daughter, and Sam isn’t.

So we have here just about every overused element I’ve seen in the last ten years. We have the alcoholic addict that wants to drink but mustn’t, needs to use, but must resist. Over. And over. And then we have Bad Mama, a very popular mechanism of late. Mothers can rarely be good guys in today’s novels, and they’re (we’re,) such low-hanging fruit. As if that isn’t sufficient, we also have the twins-changing-roles trope, slightly modified. Even the name—Elli—can anybody out there write a novel, oh please, in which the protagonist is not Allie, or Alex, or Ellie, or some other variant on this same, eternal name?

I made it through the first forty percent or so withholding judgment, because I figured this author is one that can pull it out of the water and make it shine. But I realize this book is not up to snuff when I see how frequently I am setting it aside to read my other galleys. When I read the other two of Brown’s novels mentioned above, I started them, stuck with them to the exclusion of other books, finished them fast, and reviewed them. This time I would often consider opening it, and then decide on another book instead. Finally, I resolved to finish it, and so I did, but as you can see, I wasn’t impressed.

Brown is a capable novelist, and I’m not giving up on her. Anybody can have a dud someplace in their career. But as for this book, I advise you to read it cheap or free, if you read it at all.

The Golden Couple, by Greer Hendricks*****

Audio Narrated by Karissa Vacker and Marin Ireland

 My thanks go to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press for the invitation to read and review. The Golden Couple is the third novel I’ve read by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, and it’s the best so far. This book becomes available to the public, in print and in audio, March 8, 2022. Those that enjoy a solid psychological thriller should order it right now.

We have three major characters. The first is Avery, the therapist, and she is the only one to use the first person, so if we have to choose one character as protagonist, she’s the one. The other two are Marissa and Matthew, two halves of the married couple she is counseling. The narrative shifts between them, with the lion’s share going to Avery and Marissa, and less to Matthew.

Before we go farther, I will tell you that when I learn that Avery is a therapist, my initial reaction is the eye roll. Seriously? Another therapist, as in An Anonymous Girl? Can we have a little variety here, maybe. And suspicious type that I am, I think I smell a good writing team becoming hacks, too comfortable with a formula. But oh no no no, that’s not at all what is happening here! This is nowhere near the same story.

The premise is that Marissa wants to come in with Matthew for counseling. She has cheated on him—just once—and she wants to tell him, but she is afraid of his reaction. She treasures her marriage, and the little family they have created with their son, eight year old Bennett. She doesn’t want him to leave her, and he has a bit of a temper. She’s come to ask a pro for help, and has heard fine things about Avery’s work. Avery has a ten-step method that she swears will help every couple, whether it’s to find a way to stay together, or the best way to uncouple. She believes the marriage can be saved.

Now, Avery, our therapist, is an odd duck. She’s lost her license to practice as a psychologist because of some unconventional methods, and we learn this right at the outset, so we’re already on the back foot, watching to see if she does something hinky. She seems like she may be a bit sketchy, and the couple seem almost too good to be true, both ready to do whatever it takes to salvage their relationship and move forward. And yet, clearly, not all is as it seems.

I can’t tell you more than that. You don’t want a lot of information going in. Because this is a work of suspense, you can’t guess who the baddy is by keeping track of the facts as they are revealed; just sit back, and enjoy the ride.

I also received the audio version, and I alternated my reading between it and the review copy on my Kindle. Voice actors Karissa Vacker and Marin Ireland do a fine job; it’s really a toss up as to which version is better, so go with the medium you most enjoy.

Highly recommended to those that like the genre.

Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You, by Ariel Delgado Dixon***-****

I was invited to read and review by St. Martin’s Press and Net Galley, and it sounded like a winner; a debut to boot. I am disappointed not to be able to read further, because this is clearly a writer with talent, and the story is an interesting one thus far.

Here’s the thing:  I see foreshadowing that suggests the family dog is going to meet with a lot of pain, and I am not up for it.

There’s been a trend away from this lately, and I suspect this is why: there’s a lot of push-back against it these days. There was a time when the sacrifice of a (fictitious) pet was considered a lesser evil. Rather than kill or torture a character that the protagonist loves and the reader may have bonded with, take out the dog, cat, horse, etc. It’s sinister foreshadowing, but nobody is dead yet. But these days, animals in general and pets in particular are out of bounds. If a writer goes there at all, it must be well in the past and with as few details as possible. Less is more, and usually, none is even better.

Were it not for the animal cruelty that other reviewers have referenced, both with the dog and the wilderness camp, I would gladly finish and review this galley. I wish the author well, and look forward to seeing what they publish next, assuming this deal breaker doesn’t make it into their next endeavor.

My rating isn’t based on much because I didn’t get far; four stars is the rating I give most often, but this time it should be taken with a grain of salt.

Autopsy, by Patricia Cornwell*****

Autopsy is number 25 in the Kay Scarpetta series, the first forensic thrillers ever to see print. This series began in 1990, and I have read every single one, but this is the first time I’ve scored a review copy. My thanks go to William Morrow and Net Galley.

When the series began, Scarpetta was the chief medical examiner in Virginia. When last we saw her, she was working in Massachusetts, but now she’s come full circle, brought back to her old position in order to root out corruption and restore the office to the integrity it held when last Scarpetta was in charge. She didn’t expect it to be easy, and it surely isn’t.

There are long running characters that have been so well developed over the years that I almost feel as if I would know them on the street. Her husband, Benton Wesley, holds a sensitive position within the FBI, and the necessary secrecy and sudden need to pack a bag and go somewhere has led to marital tension over the course of the series, but not so much this time. Kay’s niece, Lucy, is more like a daughter; she has been estranged from her mother at times, a high-strung, self-absorbed woman that looks out for number one every minute of every day. The mother—Dorothy—is now married to Pete Marino, with whom Scarpetta has worked closely for the length of the series, and they live nearby.

At this juncture, new or inconstant readers may wonder if there’s any point to jumping into a book this far into the series. I read it with that question in mind, and whereas you won’t have the background and depth of context that faithful fans possess, you can understand everything that happens here; Cornwell doesn’t burden the reader with assumed knowledge.  And if you are a new reader, likely as not, you’ll find yourself headed to the library or bookstore to pick up others from this series. It’s that addictive.

The only background information that might make a difference is that from the outset, Kay’s whole family (except Dorothy, of course) fears for her well-being. A murder occurs in the area, and the victim is a neighbor of Pete and Dorothy’s. Immediately, there’s this sense of urgency, and it’s more than one would ordinarily expect. A neighbor has been killed; the circumstances are weird, and we don’t know whodunit; everyone is edgy about personal security, and again—especially regarding Kay’s safety. So let me help you out, if you’re new: over several of the most recent episodes, someone has attempted to kill Kay, nearly succeeding more than once, and though the occasional thug has been caught, the schemer behind the attempts is still out there somewhere. The narrative makes no specific references to any of this, which I appreciate. It’s obnoxious when a book costs as much as new books do these days, for the author to insert what amount to advertisements to buy her other books. But for those not in the know: If the beginning seems a little overwrought, that’s why.

Add to this that the old guard is still entrenched in Kay’s workplace, with people whispering behind her back, and her secretary clearly plotting against her. She’s just arrived, but she is on the back foot, trying to find out what’s going on and who can be trusted, and trying to establish her own authority without making enemies unnecessarily. As I read, I find myself urging her to assert herself. Because to me, Scarpetta isn’t a fictional character at all. I believe in this character, and I believe in Benton, Lucy, and Marino, too. I’ve known them longer than a lot of people I see in real life, after all.

Those of us that read a lot of mysteries, thrillers, and so forth become accustomed to timeworn plot devices. I have a little list of things I hate to find in books of this genre, and Cornwell avoids them all. There is no alcoholic protagonist that just wants a drink, a drink, a drink. There’s no kidnapping of the protagonist and stuffing her in the trunk (or backseat, or whatever,) nor does this happen to any of her loved ones. Scarpetta is not being framed for a murder she didn’t commit, nor is anyone she loves.

Instead, we get an autopsy in outer space, supervised remotely by Scarpetta. How cool is that?

One other aspect of this book, and this series, that I love, is that there is just enough interesting information included about forensic investigation without the story turning into some tedious science lecture, as I have found in books scribed by Cornwall’s imitators.

The pacing is swift, the dialogue crackles, and a new character, Officer Fruge, is introduced. Hers is the last word in the book, and for some reason, it made me laugh out loud, a first for this series.

Welcome home, Scarpetta.

The Nameless Ones, by John Connolly*****

Connolly has written the creepiest, spookiest, best written novel you will see this October. The Nameless Ones is #19 in the Charlie Parker series; my thanks go to Atria Books and Net Galley for the review copy. This book goes up for sale October 26, 2021.

The series continues a conflict that began earlier in the series; that said, you can jump in here anyway. However, once you read this one, you’ll want to go back and pick up the others, or at least, say, the last five or six leading up to it. That’s all to the good, since Connolly can’t write as fast as you can read. Perhaps if you collect them you will be entertained until his next one comes out.

Unlike any of his other Charlie Parker stories, Parker plays a relatively peripheral role, with his two massively popular assistants, Angel and Louis, up front, with Louis having the lion’s share of the action. These two, who have served as Parker’s investigators and at times, as his body guards, are interesting characters. They do not love the law, but they do love each other. Angel is recovering from cancer treatment and Louis is in search of vengeance. Someone they had hired as a liaison in Serbia has been murdered, and the man’s last act, when he saw the walls closing in, was to wire a substantial sum into Louis’s account. Louis, in turn, intends to use that money to terminate the men that terminated his colleague. Stranger still, he is supported—in a massively unofficial manner—by the FBI. He doesn’t like it much, but there they are.

There’s a new character named Zorya, who is dead, but hasn’t crossed over. “She was a creature of the cold and dark. Zorya had winter blood.” She is physically small, and in a hoodie she is generally accepted by bystanders as an adolescent. She has attached herself to one of the men Louis is hunting, and has clairvoyant gifts. But what’s particularly interesting is her relationship to Jennifer Parker, the murdered seven-year-old daughter of Charlie. Jennifer has appeared to her father on a number of occasions, sometimes providing him with critical information. Now Connolly has decided to develop Jennifer, who has obtained a fair amount of power and authority on the other side of the veil. When Zorya targets Charlie, Jennifer targets Zorya. This is one of the coolest gambits I have seen in years, and I can’t wait to see what happens in the next book. But let’s get back to this one, since that’s what I’m supposed to be doing here.

New readers should prepare for a good deal of violence, and the most graphic and horrific shows up right at the beginning, so if you read it and aren’t sure you can stay the course through the end of the book, take heart. Lots more people are going to drop dead, but the most nightmarish details are up front. Nevertheless, it’s not something I read directly before sleeping.

The intensity and horror are nicely broken up with humor; the dialogue featuring Louis, Angel, or both positively crackles. I laughed out loud more than once. A pair of secondary bodyguards, the Fulci Brothers, whom Angel and Louis have deputized to watch out for Charlie at one point, are also welcome additions, and in no way resemble the pair that hired them. Sure enough, they save Parker’s butt. When the police arrive and Parker tells them only the bare minimum, the detective in charge reminds him that his would-be assassins may try again. “The Fulcis won’t always be ready to come to the rescue with a tire iron and a bear head.” (!!!)

As always, Connolly deftly employs a huge number of characters, and yet I am able to keep all of them straight. He keeps the time sequence linear, and this helps the story flow and keeps the players and events from becoming entangled.

If you’ve followed this review to this point, you have all the stamina you need to enjoy this exceptional novel. True, the book is longer than my review, but Connolly writes a lot better, too.

Highly recommended!

Steel Fear, by Brandon Webb and John David Mann*****

Steel Fear is the first in a series by Brandon Webb and John David Mann. It’s billed as a “high-octane thriller,” and that’s what it is. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

Before starting the novel, I flipped to “About the Authors,” which is at the end of the book. Webb is a retired SEAL himself, boasting a list of awards as long as your flippers. He is a top level frog, which is a combat diver, and he not only is trained as a sniper, but has been in charge of training other snipers. Suffice to say, he is qualified to write a book like this and knows what he’s talking about. This thriller took ten years to see publication, and a good part of that delay was getting one aspect after another of his description of the aircraft carrier, The Abraham Lincoln, cleared by the Pentagon. Mann is not ex-military, but has an impressive list of achievements in the arts.

Our protagonist is Finn, a SEAL who’s being sent back to the states on The Abraham Lincoln. He doesn’t know why; nobody on the boat does, either; and he cannot reach anyone that can enlighten him. This keeps Finn off balance, the reader doesn’t know whether Finn is trustworthy, so that keeps the reader off balance, too. We meet him when Monica Halsey, a helicopter pilot who is also an important character, is sent to pick him up. Two men approach the helicopter, and they are described as a large man that looks like a mountain lion, and a little guy that looks like a marsupial. Finn is the marsupial, and when I learn that he is a funny-looking little guy, it endears him to me. When we see him disappear on board ship, blending in, seeing and hearing things he isn’t meant to, it’s all the more impressive. I still don’t know if I should like this guy, yet I do.

The crew is reeling from a horrible, unexplainable accident that took the lives of a helicopter crew; soon after, there is a suicide, and then another. Suicide, we learn, is at epidemic levels in the military, and so at first, most people don’t question it; but both suicides are a little too similar, and Halsey smells a rat. So does Finn.

At the outset, there’s a great deal of description of the aircraft carrier, and at first I feel impatient to get on with the story, but soon I can see that the setting is very important, and the description is necessary to understanding it. Webb does a fine job with it, and it’s a good thing, because when I ran a Google search for images, I got mostly air.

National security indeed.

The chapters are very short, and the point of view changes constantly, with Finn and Monica occupying more space than other crew members. Between the shifting viewpoints; Finn’s anxious attempts to find out where he’s going, what his status is, and why he’s being sent away; and Monica’s urgent need to know why her friends are dead, and if anyone else she cares about is next, I am kept on the edge of my seat. Still more deaths follow, and by the halfway mark, my heart is beating a little quicker, and I know better than to let myself read it at bedtime. Fortunately, despite the deaths, which continue of course, there isn’t a lot of gore, and I happily made this book my lunchtime companion. Once I got near the climax, there was no putting it down till the thing was done.

I tend to be leery of books written by military folks, because sometimes there’s a right-wing overtone to the prose that grates against my own values. This isn’t a problem here.  Instead, this is a rock solid opening to a promising new series, and I can’t wait to read the next one. Highly recommended to all that love the genre.

The Power Couple, by Alex Berenson****

Alex Berenson has done it again! I first read his work when I found a galley for The Prisoner, the eleventh in his John Wells series. When I saw that this stand alone thriller was available, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.  The Power Couple is a fast read and a fun one, and I recommend it to you.

Rebecca (call her Becks) and Brian Unsworth are type A achievers, and both work for the federal government; she is a spy, and he is a hacker. But like so many couples, the similarities that brought them together are getting in their way now. With their children, Kira, who is nineteen, and Tony, who is younger, they take off for Europe to let off steam and spend quality time together. Maybe.

Early in the story, Kira is abducted, and from there forward, the pacing is perfect. Now and then Berenson pulls us back a bit as he shares sketches from their pasts that lead up to this event, but each reminiscence is brief, and the shift between points of view and time periods adds to the suspense. We see their lives through the perspectives of all except Tony, who is a minor character. In the end, Kira is the one we like best. (Trust me.) There’s not a lot of character development, but this isn’t that kind of novel.

I don’t want to give more away, because if I kill any surprises, you won’t enjoy the story as much; what I will say is that even if your own marriage is less than perfect, it is a shining beacon of integrity and affection when contrasted with that of the Unsworths.

This book is for sale now, and just right to take on vacation with you.

Mother May I, by Joshilyn Jackson*****

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite authors, and so I was delighted to see that she has another novel coming out this spring. My heartfelt thanks go to Net Galley, Harper Audio, and William Morrow for the review copies. This book is for sale now.

One of the things I love about Jackson is that she recognizes and includes social class as a large factor in the lives of her characters. I am initially sorry to see that her protagonist, Bree Cabbat, is married to a wealthy man, but once the story unfolds, it becomes obvious that the story won’t work any other way. Although Bree is rolling in it now, she grew up poor, the child of a single parent that took her back-to-school shopping at a Goodwill two towns over from their tiny Georgia town, carefully making sure that Bree’s classmates not recognize their own castoffs when Bree wore them. Later, theater classes helped Bree refine her accent to make her more employable; acting lessons helped her project the carefree confidence that is common to young adults whose families have money.

Now she is married to Trey, a man “who’d grown up with Scooters and Biffs and Muffys.” As the story progresses, there are frequent subtle reminders of this; Trey has a gun safe; Trey has a bottle of whiskey, a gift, that cost over two thousand dollars; their daughters are in an upscale school with a nice theatre program, and their daughters are enrolled in extracurricular activities like Quiz Bowl and Robotics. Yes, our Bree has come up in the world, alrighty. And so when their baby is kidnapped out from under her very nose, naturally Bree’s assumption is that there will be a ransom, and that she and Trey will pay it.

But this time, she is oh so wrong.

When the call comes, it turns out to be a very elderly woman bent on exacting revenge against Trey’s business partner, who is also his cousin. Bree must do exactly as she says, because if she sees any sign of police, “I’ll break his flimsy neck…I’ll twist his little head right around backward.”

Dear God.

 This story grabbed me by the hair and didn’t let me go till I was done with it. I was initially approved for the audio version, and by the time I was given access to the print version, I had finished the first galley. Ordinarily, when something like this happens, I write my review, submit it to both places, and figure my work is done here. But for Jackson I do due diligence and more, and it’s a pleasure to read her book twice, so I did. And while both versions are excellent, I give a slight edge to the audio version. Print is a desirable medium anytime one is reading any mystery, because sometimes we want to flip back to check a detail or two. But Jackson always records her own audio books, and so I know the interpretation of the reader is always completely consistent with the writer’s intention. And in this case, the key side character—Marshall, an ex-cop that was married to Bree’s best friend, now dead—has a distinctive voice that comes through somewhat in the printed version, but much more plainly in the audio. I love the way she voices him, and although Marshall isn’t the protagonist, his role in this story is critical. The narrative shifts between Bree, who speaks to us from the first person limited, and Marshall, who comes to us in the third person.

The story carries an added social justice component: it’s MeToo on steroids. The things we learn about the men in the story add complexity, and though there’s a trigger or two here, I suspect most female readers will find the denouement deeply satisfying. I do.

The ending would ordinarily be deemed over-the-top, but because I believe the characters and story so completely by the time we get there, I also believe the resolution.

The one thing I would change here, if I wanted to be picky, would be to find a way to inject some of the epic laugh-out-loud humor I have enjoyed in Jackson’s earlier books. But that’s a tall order, given the intensity of this one.

One way or the other, this book is guaranteed to be one of the year’s very best. Don’t let yourself be left out. I strongly recommend this book to you, even at full cover price.

A Small Town, by Thomas Perry*****

This is a super fun read. An entire small town is undone by a prison break that leaves so many townsfolk dead that those that remain mostly just move away. The chief of police is a woman that lost her family and her boyfriend, and she decides to take herself on a black op to find the guys that did the killing and remove them from the map. The town council quietly backs her by steering a Federal grant aimed toward law enforcement toward her project.

I got the audio version from Seattle Bibliocommons, and Christina Delaine does a sensational job as narrator. Cops that act outside the law are a sore spot right now, especially within the US, but Perry and Delaine drop me right into a make-believe time and place. It helps that the bad guys are Caucasian. I also like having the protagonist be a tall woman, bucking the trend toward tiny-firecracker female cops and detectives. The things she does on her mission seem more plausible for a tall woman, and Perry doesn’t knock himself out to make her seem adorable. In addition, there’s never a slow spot from start to finish, and never a moment when the mood is ruined by a detail done wrong. It’s about as perfect a thriller as you can get. Highly recommended, particularly in audio.