There's something ominous circling the three characters in David Shafer's debut novel, but quite frankly, I haven't been giving it much attention. I've been far too caught up in Shafer's unrelenting humor—which is wicked and dark, just how I like it—and his spotless characterization. That being said, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot also fulfills all the requirements of an outstanding technothriller, with pulsing strains of paranoia and those all-seeing technological powers-that-be.
The story centers around 30-somethings Leila, Leo and Mark. Leo and Mark were friends at Harvard, but Leo is now a bit of a loser, while Mark is a phony self-help guide who works for the Committee, a data collection agency that seeks to privatize all information. Leila is a disillusioned nonprofit worker on the other side of the world. The only thing keeping the Committee from its goal is a secret underground Internet called Dear Diary. With jabs at every political angle, a love story and plenty of cool tech, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is a pageturner of the highest order.
Read on for an excerpt from Leo's first scene:
There was no one even near Leo when he flew from his bike. His mind cast about for a culprit, for someone to blame other than himself. The bike just ceased its forward motion and he did not. How surprising, how nifty physics was. And as he trebucheted toward a four-inch curb, aware at once that his meeting with it would be physically calamitous, he remembered that he was wearing no helmet, and his surprised turned to fear. A month ago, at a party to which his friend Louis had brought him, Leo had heard (well, overheard) the host claiming that he wasn't afraid of death. That particular claim seemed to Leo to be demonstrably false. So, costumed as Jesus (for this was a Halloween party), Leo had decided to explore the man's reasoning. Not afraid of death, huh? My, that must make you a real psychopath. But he had seen almost immediately that he should not have told the man that he was like a Holocaust denier. "I said like a Holocaust denier. Like," he protested lamely when Louis escorted him out of the party and told him to enjoy the bracing walk home dressed as Jesus.
No, thought Leo, as he landed his right hand, fingertips first, on the cold nubbly of the curb, I am definitely more than a body, but I believe I am less than a soul.
Then, with a fluid agility that hadn't been his in years, Leo tucked his head and vertical body behind the leading edge of his rounded arm. Some latent muscle memory from five months of jujitsu at the McBurney YMA on West Sixty-Third Street from when he was ten? Leo seemed to recall that this YMCA had in fact served the adventurous class of men described in the song. Now, he felt a point beneath his stomach become the axis of his spinning mass, and he knew to use that dragony breath to take the hit when, after about 120 degrees, his trunk met the sidewalk, hard. Next was his hip and ass, which rolled over not just the concrete but also a busted padlock on the scene by chance. Then came his knees and feet, with a thwack. That was followed by his trailing left arm, which lay down gently, and his gloved palm, which landed and sprang back, the way a conguero lands a hand on the taut hide of his drum.
Leo stood up. He was fine. Just fine. Right as rain.
Leo stood up again, this time more carefully. Okay, maybe fine was an overstatement. But ambulatory and intact. A bit exhilarated, actually.
His bike lay twisted in the street behind him, its front tire still clamped in the groove of the new light-rail system tracks they were laying all over town. Only now did he notice the yellow-and-black warming signs that would have made him aware of the hazard his bike had to cross. The graphics depicted pretty much what had just happened: a bicycle with its front wheel caught in the maw of the track, the blockish pictogram rider hurtling over the handlebars. An honest piece of graphic art; a tiny, two-line picture poem, thought Leo, and he started to upbraid himself for his carelessness and lack of attention.
But wait. On one corner—the direction from which he'd come—the warning sign was there, but it was swathed in black plastic, taped up tight.
The thought came like a revelation: This was no accident. They obscured that sign because they want me eliminated.
Some part of him said, No, don't be ridiculous. But then why was only one sign shrouded?
What are you reading today?
If there's one thing that keeps drawing me back to M.J. McGrath's Arctic thrillers, it's the impeccably rendered sense of place. And I'm not just talking about the beautiful and dangerous landscape of the Canadian arctic, but also the historical and cultural details of the Inuit people. In McGrath's third mystery, following White Heat and The Boy in the Snow, half-Inuit and half-outsider Edie Kiglatuk—with the help of Sergeant Derek Palliser—investigates the murder of one of her summer-school students, a young Inuit woman who turns up in the toxic Lake Turngaluk. As this drama unfolds, an environmental conspiracy concerning the toxic lake begins to take shape. The Bone Seeker can certainly be read as a standalone—and should be read, especially by those who crave harsh northern landscapes—but I'd recommend revisiting Kiglatuk's previous adventures as well.
Read on for an excerpt:
She was gazing down at a dip in the land that locals called Lake Turngaluk, the Lake of Bad Spirits, though it was mostly dry now, pitted here and there by windings of briny marsh. Locals said the area was a portal to the underworld and that birds wouldn't fly over it for fear of being sucked under but Derek didn't hold with that kind of nonsense, prefering to believe that the birds didn't bother to visit because what was left of the water was devoid of fish, a fact that had nothing to do with spirits or the underworld and everything to do with contamination from the radar system. So far as Derek understood it, the site should have been cleaned up years ago but it had got mired in political horse-trading until, about a decade ago, Charlie Salliaq had dismissed the old legal team and called on the services of Sonia Gutierrez, a prominent human rights lawyer specializing in aboriginal land claims. They'd finally won their case against the Department of Defence last year. One of Colonel Klinsman's jobs was to organize a working party to begin the necessary decontamination work at the station and on the surrounding land, including the lake.
'How odd,' Edie said. She pointed out of the side window but all he could see were a few thin strings of cirrus.
'What?' Derek undid his belt and twisted his neck around, though it made his head swim to do it.
'A bear. They're usually on their way north to the floe edge by now.'
'You want me to swing back?' Pol asked Derek.
The policeman nodded and prepared himself for the stomach lurch. Ahead, the rows of tents and prefab units of Camp Nanook stood on the tundra in incongruous straight lines, as though on parade. The plane rose higher then banked sharply and wheeled round, retracing their route through a patch of cloud. Coming through into clear air they caught sight of the bear. Spooked by the sound of the aircraft engine, it was running for the safety of the sea.
The surface of the pool where the bear had been appeared to be bubbling and seething. Derek first supposed it was a trick of the light, but as the slipstream from the plane passed across it, the western bank seemed to expand, as though it had suddenly turned to gas. He realized that he never seen anything like this before. He turned back, leaning over Edie to get a better view.
'What the hell is that?'
She curled around and caught his gaze. There was something wild about the way she was looking at him now, the muscles in her face taut, her black eyes blazing.
He began to speak but she cut him off. 'They're feeding on whatever attracted the bear.'
Readers, what are you reading today?
James Lee Burke is best known for his Dave Robicheaux mystery series, but his new standalone novel has completely blown me away. Historical thriller Wayfaring Stranger follows the life of Weldon Holland, the grandson of Burke's series character Hackberry Holland. From a run-in with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Texas to heroic acts during World War II (rescuing soldiers and concentration camp prisoners alike), the early days of Weldon's life are—in a word—epic. After the war ends in Europe, Weldon returns to Texas, marries and starts an oil pipeline business. But peacetime has its own dangers, as Weldon's success in the oil biz—and marriage to a Jewish woman—creates plenty of enemies.
And of course all of this unfolds with Burke's classic prose, tinged with nostalgia in a way that seems perfect for historical fiction. Read on for an excerpt from when Weldon and his grandfather first encounter Bonnie and Clyde:
The windmill was ginning furiously, the stanchions trembling with energy, a thread of water coming from teh spout, the tank crusted with dirt and dead insects and animal hair along the rimes. "The moon looks like it was dipped in a teacup. I cain't believe how we used to take the rain for granted," he said. "I think this land must be cursed."
The air smelled of ash and dust and creosote and horse and cow manure that feathered in your hand if you picked it up. Dry lightning leaped through the heavens and died, like somebody removing an oil lamp from the window of a darkened house. I thought I felt thunder course through the ground under my shoes. "Feel that?" I said, hoping to change Grandfather's mood and my own.
"Don't get your hopes up. That's the Katy blowing down the line," he replied. "I'm sorry I made fun of your butt, Satch. I won't do it no more. Walk behind me till we know who's in that car."
As we approached the tree line, the driver of teh car walked out of the headlights and stood silhouetted against the glare, the got back in his car and started the engine and clanked the transmission into gear. The trees were so dry they made a sound like paper rustling when the wind blew through the canopy.
"Hold up there," Grandfather said to the man.
I thought the driver would simply motor away. But he didn't. He stuck his elbow out the window and stared straight into our faces, his expression curious rather than alarmed. "You talking to us?" he asked.
"You're on my property," Grandfather said.
"I thought this was public woods," the driver said. "If there's a posted sign that says otherwise, I didn't see it."
The woman next to him was pretty and had strawberry-blonde hair and a beret tilted over one eye. She looked like a happy country girl, the kind who works in a dime store or in a café where the truckers come in to make innocent talk. She leaned forward and grinned up into Grandfather's face. She silently mouthed the words "We're sorry."
"Did you know you have mud on your license tag?" Grandfather asked the driver.
"I'll get right on that," the driver said.
"You also have what appears to be a bullet hole in your back window."
Think you'll check out Burke's newest? What are you reading today?
Looking for an especially meaty thriller to dive into this summer? Terry Hayes may have just the novel for you with I Am Pilgrim; weighing in at 640 pages, Hayes offers up a page-turner with plenty of muscle. A retired intelligence officer for a U.S. organization far more secret than the CIA, known simply as Pilgrim, has penned a game-changing textbook on criminal investigation that has brought police investigation miles ahead of where it once was. But there's a problem—a particularly ruthless someone seems to have read it a bit too well, and may have committed the perfect unsolvable murder.
Humble, yet tough-as-nails homicide detective Ben Bradley tracks Pilgrim down in the streets of Paris to beg for his help in the investigation, and soon the action takes off at a breathtaking pace. From Moscow to the United Kingdom, from Saudi Arabia to the dusty streets of Afghanistan and back home to the U.S., the manhunt for a brilliant terrorist known as "the Saracen" tests everything Pilgrim has learned in the field.
For almost a decade I was a member of our country's most secret intelligence organization, working so deep in shadow that only a handful of people even knew of our existence. The agency's task was to police our country's intelligence community, to act as the covert world's internal affairs department. To that extent, you might say, we were a throwback to the Middle Ages. We were the ratcatchers.
Although the number of people employed by the twenty-six publicly acknowledge–and eight unnamed—US intelligence organizations is classified, it is reasonable to say that over one hundred thousand people came within our orbit. A population that size meant the crimes we investigated ran the gamut-from treason to corruption, murder to rape, drug dealing to theft. The only difference was that some of the perpetrators were the best and brightest of the world.
The group entrusted with this elite and highly classified mission was established by Jack Kennedy in the early months of his administration. After a particularly lurid scandal at the CIA—the details of which still remain secret—he apparently decided members of the intelligence community were as subject to human frailty as the population in general. More so probably.
What are you reading this week?
Few other contemporary writers meld history and espionage quite like David Downing. Following the finale in his John Russell/Station series, which was set during World War II, Downing takes readers a bit further back in time with his exceptionally well-researched new spy thriller, Jack of Spies. The first in a new series set in 1914, this story goes beyond its World War I backdrop to explore events such as the Irish Republican movement, the Indian independence movement and much more.
Readers meet globe-trotting car salesman / British agent Jack McColl, who has just begun working for the fledgling Royal Navy intelligence. The spying gig gets complicated quickly, and not just because the world is on the brink of war. McColl is stationed in China, where he is attempting to obtain information on the Germans and the Chinese. Fleeing for his life, McColl ends up on a journey around the world, from Shanghai to San Francisco. Along the way, he falls in love with a striking American journalist, which only serves to complicate things. This is a fascinating introduction to the birth of British spy culture.
Read on for an excerpt:
Hurrying across the yard and down the alley, he emerged onto Prinz Heinrich Strasse and into a bitter wind. The sky was lightening, and a Chinese man was working his way down the street, dousing the ornate gas lamps. The side of the station building was visible up ahead, but no smoke was rising above it—if Hsu Ch'ing-lan was right about the time of departure, he'd have at least forty-five minutes to wait.
Which was obviously out of the question. He might as well give himself up as sit in the station for that long.
Perhaps he could hide somewhere close by and then surreptitiously board the train at the moment of departure.
The possibility sustained him until he reached the corner across from the station and leaned his head around for a view of the forecourt. There were several uniformed Germans in evidence, and one was looking straight at him. "Halt!" the man shouted.
McColl's first instinct, which he regretted a moment later, was to turn and run. Better a few months in jail than a bullet in the back, he thought as Prinz Heinrich Strasse stretched out before him, looking too much like a shooting range for comfort. But it was a bit late now to take a chance on his pursuers' levelheadedness. He swerved off between two buildings and down the dark alley that divided them. He reckoned he had a fifty-meter start and must have run almost that far when a crossroads presented itself. Sparing a second to look back, he found the alley behind him still empty. But as he swung right, he heard shouts in the distance, which seemed to come from up ahead.
What are you reading today?
Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series—immortalized on screen as the HBO series "True Blood"—concluded in May of 2012. Like most epic, beloved series, it had a finale that was somewhat controversial, but it also left fans eager to see what Harris would turn her hand to next.
Turns out, she's moving to Texas. Midnight Crossroad is the first in a trilogy set in a the small town of Midnight, Texas, which is shaken up by the arrival of psychic Manfred Bermardo, whom longtime Harris fans will remember from the Harper Connelly mysteries. Skinny, pale and pierced, Manfred is the sort of person who might stand out in a place like midnight, but what really worries the people of Midnight is his profession. After all, a small town is the perfect place to start over if you have a past . . . and you can't hide secrets from a psychic.
Fiji's lips tightened. "Listen, I know you're not a computer person, but Google his name, okay? You know how to Google, don't you?
"I just put my lipst together and blow?" Bobo said.
Fiji caught the reference, but she wasn't in the mood for jollity. "Bobo, he's the real deal." She wriggled uneasily in her hard wooden rocker. "He'll know stuff."
"You saying I have secrets he might reveal?" Bobo was still smiling, but the fun had gone out of his eyes. He combed his longish blond hair back with both hands.
"We all have secrets," Fiji said.
"Even you, Feej?"
She shrugged. "A few."
"You think I do, too?" He regarded her steadily.
She met his eyes. "I know you do. Otherwise, why would you be here?"
What are you reading this week?
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read an interview with Charlaine Harris about book 10 in the Southern Vampire series.
Ooh, creepy moms and their even creepier children.
It doesn't get more psychological than Laura Kasischke's new thriller, Mind of Winter. Holly Judge wakes on Christmas morning, seized with paranoia and convinced that "something had followed them home from Siberia" when she and her husband adopted their Russian daughter Tatiana 13 years ago.
When Holly's husband leaves the house to pick up his parents from the airport, a snowstorm traps Holly and teenager Tatiana together in the house—just the two of them. As the day progresses, Holly's paranoia skyrockets. Kasischke, a National Books Critics Circle Award-winning poet, slowly draws readers into this twisty, stream-of-consciousness narrative, and readers discover layers upon layers of guilt and denial as reality gives way to the tricks of the mind.
From the opening chapter, it's clear that Holly is not a narrator we can trust. She comes off a little (OK, very) crazy, but we still want to believe that she hasn't completely lost her marbles. She might not be particularly likable, but once you get used to Kasischke's writing style, Mind of Winter is nearly impossible to put down. Read on for an excerpt:
Something had followed them home from Russia!
It was the explanation for so many things!
The cat, crawling off. Her back legs, her tail.
And her husband. The bump on the back of his hand, like a tiny third fist—a homunculus's!—growing. They'd said it was benign, but how could such a thing be benign? They'd said to ignore it, but how? Something was bearing fruit inside her husband, or trying to claw its way out. How were they to ignore it?
(Although, to be fair to Dr. Fujimura, they had learned to ignore it, and it had eventually stopped growing, just as she'd said it would.)
And Aunt Rose. How her language had changed. How she'd begun to speak in a foreign language. How Holly'd had to stop making her calls because she couldn't stand it anymore, and how angry her cousins had been, saying She loved to talk to you. You were her favorite. You abandoned her when she was dying.
And then the hens. Ganging up on the other one, on the hen she'd so stupidly, so cavalierly, named Sally. Six weeks, and then—
Don't think about Sally. Never think of that hen and her horrible name again.
And the water stain over the dining room table in the shape of a shadowy face—although they could never find anywhere that water would have seeped through their skintight, warranty-guaranteed roof. The roof company men had stood around in their filthy boots and stared up at it, refusing to take any blame.
Also, without explanation, the wallpaper had curled away in the bathroom. Just that one edge. You could never do anything to keep it in place. They'd tried every adhesive on the market, but the daisy wallpaper would stick fast for exactly three days and nights before it peeled away again.
Holly needed to write down these things, this evidence! The cat, Aunt Rose, the bump on her husband's hand, the hens, the water stain, the wallpaper—along with the clue provided to her by the dream:
Something had followed them home from Russia.
Who's up for some creepy reading? Anyone else going to check out Mind of Winter?
Joyland by Stephen King
Hard Case Crime • $12.95
This paperback original from from the author of some of the creepiest books every written finds Devin Jones, a likeable, heartbroken college kid, as he takes a summer job at Joyland, an amusement park with a haunted Horror House and a bloody history.
Sure, you've got your spooks and your murder, but Joyland is lovely for its depiction of the dissolution of young love and the boy who surfaces on the other side. Read on for an excerpt from Devin's first day of work at Joyland:
We did as we were told, and an old man emerged from the wings, walking with the careful, high-stepping strides of someone with bad hips, or bad back, or both. He was tall and amazingly thing, dressed in a black suit that made him look more like an undertaker than a man who owned an amusement park. His face was long, pale, covered with bumps and moles. Shaving must have been a torture for him, but he had a clean one. Ebony hair that had surely come out of a bottle was swept back from his deeply lined brow. He stood beside the podium, his enormous hands—they seemed to be nothing but knuckles—clasped before him. His eyes were set deep in pouched sockets.
Age looked at youth, and youth's applause first weekend, then died.
I'm not sure what we expected; possibly a mournful foghorn voice telling us that the Red Death would soon hold sway over all. Then he smiled, and it lit him up like a jukebox. You could almost hear a sigh of relief rustle through the summer hires.
Have you checked out the newest from King? If you haven't, you can enter to win it in this week's book giveaway!
Ghostman by Roger Hobbs
Knopf • $24.95 • ISBN 9780307959966
On sale February 12, 2013
You know that feeling when you pick up a book, read the first few pages—and realize you're in for the long haul? (And oh, by the way, whatever plans you had for that weekend are officially out the window.) That's how I felt when I started reading Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, a debut thriller that was written while the author was a student at Reed College.
The story starts with a bang—or several bangs, really, as a couple of criminals botch a heist at an Atlantic City casino. So then our main character, a "fixer" named Jack, is summoned to clean up the mess.
It's a given that this story is suspenseful and zippy, but devoted thriller readers will be happy to hear that it's also stylishly written, thoroughly researched and tightly plotted. Reading Ghostman, you get the sense that you've just discovered an author who may become a favorite for many years to come, and that is an exciting feeling indeed. In fact: Here at BookPage, we liked the novel so much we decided to interview Hobbs for our February issue—so be on the lookout for that in about six weeks.
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of the novel:
It takes months of planning to take down a casino. Luckily for them, Ribbons had done this sort of thing before. Ribbons was a two-time felon out of Philadelphia. Not an attractive résumé item, even for the kind of guy who sets up jobs like this, but it meant he had motive not to get caught. He had skin the color of charcoal and blue tattoos he'd got in Rockview Pen that peeked out from his clothing at odd angles. He'd done five years for his part in strong-arming a Citibank in Northern Liberties back in the nineties, but had never seen time for the four or five bank jobs he'd helped pull since he got out. He was a big man. At least six foot four with more than enough weight to match. Folds of fat poured out over his belt, and his face was as round and smooth as a child's. He could press four hundred on a good day, and six hundred after a couple of lines of coke. he was good at this, whatever his rap sheet said.
Hector Moreno was more the soldier type. Five and a half feet, a quarter of Ribbons's weight, hair as short as desert grass, and bones that showed through his coffee-colored skin. He was a good marksman from his days in the service, and he didn't blink except when he twitched. His sheet showed a dishonorable discharge but no time served. He got back home and spent a year cutting chops in Boston and another browbeating protection money out of dope dealers in Vegas. This was his first big job, so he was nervous about it. He had a whole pharmacy in the Dodge with him, just to get his nut up. Pills and poppers and powders and smokes.
A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
Minotaur • $24.99 • ISBN 9781250003485
On sale August 21, 2012
Before I even cracked the cover, it was obvious that Julia Keller's debut novel, A Killing in the Hills, has a lot going for it. The author is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune journalist, and her book has received advanced praise from four of the best suspense novelists around: Dennis Lehane, Scott Turow, Laura Lippman and Tom Franklin. I'd call that a pre-publication publicity home run . . . wouldn't you?
Fortunately, the story that's inside the cover holds up to the hype. It's a spooky and atmospheric tale of what happens after three men are murdered in a coffee shop in the small Appalachian town of Acker's Gap, West Virginia. A teenaged waitress sees the murders, but she's not just any old witness: Her mother is the county prosecuting attorney. Turns out both mother and daughter have a stake in catching the killer . . . who may not be done with his rampage.
Here's an excerpt from the beginning of this suspenseful story:
The old men sat around the little plastic table in the crowded restaurant, a trio of geezers in shiny black jackets, mumbling, chuckling, shaking their heads and then blowing across the tops of their brown cardboard cubs of coffee, pushing out their flabby pink old-man lips to do so.
Then sipping. Then blowing again.
Jesus, Carla thought. What a bunch of losers.
Watching them made her feel, in every restless inch of her seventeen-year-old body, so infinitely superior to these withered fools and their pathetic little rituals that she was pretty sure it showed; she was fairly certain her contempt was half-visible, rising from her skin in a skittish little shimmer. The late-morning sunshine flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling glass walls made everything look sharper, rawer, the edges more intense. You can't hide a thing in here.
She would remember this moment for the rest of her life. Because it was The line.
Because at this point, she would realize later, these three old men had less than a minute to live.
What are you reading today?