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?
The City by Dean Koontz
Bantam, $28, ISBN 9780345545930
On sale July 1, 2014
Dean Koontz has long been known for providing thrills and chills to readers, but his new novel The City is something of an exception. Set in the 1960s and 1970s, it tells the story of Jonah Kirk, growing up as part of a close family in a nameless city and dreaming of becoming a "piano man." Jonah becomes a remarkable boy mostly thanks to his remarkable mother, who gave up her own dreams of attending Oberlin to have and raise him without much help from Jonah's ne'er do well father. Their close relationship is a highlight of the book, as shown in this excerpt, which takes place shortly after Jonah's mother has thrown his father out for good.
After school that day, I walked to the community center to practice piano. When I got home, all she said was, "Your father's no longer living here. He went upstairs to help Miss Delvane with her rodeo act, and I wasn't having any of that."
Too young to sift the true meaning of her words, I found the idea of a mechanical horse more fascinating than ever and hoped I might one day see it. My mother's Reader's Digest condensation of my father's leaving didn't satisfy my curiousity. I had many questions but I refrained from asking them. . . . Right then I told Mom the secret I couldn't have revealed when Tilton lived with is, that I had been taking piano lessons from Mrs. O'Toole for more than two months. She hugged me and got teary and apologized, and I didn't understand what she was apologizing for. She said it didn't matter if I understood, all that mattered was that she would never again allow anyone or anything to get between me and a piano and any other dream I might have.
What are you reading this week?
House of Glass by Sophie Littlefield
MIRA • $14.95 • ISBN 9780778314783
Published on February 25, 2014
Jen Glass lives with her husband and two children in a beautiful home in a suburb of Minneapolis. From the outside, the family couldn't look better. But on the inside, things are falling apart: Jen and her husband, Ted, are barely speaking; their teen daughter is sullen and distant and their young son has developmental delays. Just when Jen thinks things can't get any worse, they do. One night, two men break into the Glass home, but the routine robbery becomes something much worse when the family is held hostage in their own basement. Jen and Ted must overcome their differences in order to make sure their family survives the days to come.
Jen put her hand on the brass knob. Later, she would remember this detail, the warmth of the old brass to her touch, the way she had to tug to clear the slight jam.
Standing in the hallway was her beautiful daughter, her face exquisitely frozen, her lips parted and her long-lashed eyes wide with terror.
On her left, a man Jen had never seen before held Teddy in his arms, her little boy flailing ineffectively against his grip.
On her right, a man who looked unnervingly like Orlando Bloom pressed a gun to Livvy's head.
What are you reading this week?
Poppet by Mo Hayder
Atlantic Monthly • $25 • ISBN 9780802121073
published May 14, 2013
Is there any creepier setting than a mental institution? Combine that tried-and-true horror milieu with the talent of an author who can make the brightly lit streets of Tokyo feel sinister, and it's almost an unfair advantage. But that's what we get with Mo Hayder's sixth Jack Caffery thriller, Poppet.
The Beechway Psychiatric unit in Bristol, England, was built as a workhouse in the mid-1800s. After a significant remodel in the 1980s, it is now as pleasant and bright as a high-security residence for the insane can possibly be. At least, until a rumored relic from its Victorian past begins stalking the hallways, preying on the minds and bodies of the residents. Is "The Maude," as the residents refer to the disruptive agent, actually a ghost? Or is it something even more evil—and human?
"Don't make me say what's scary, Mr AJ, or mention that name. I bin told I ain't supposed to say it, so I ain't even going to whisper it and you'll excuse me for that, but though you are my deep and most respectful of friends, I am just going to keep my piehole shut at this moment in time."
[Moses] nods to himself as if to confirm those were the exact words he meant to use. He says nothing more. The doctors spent a long time putting Moses back together, working on his eye implant, but if you know what to look for you can still see his face is misshapen. What actually happened to Moses that night? AJ wonders. They can go on putting The Maude down to hallucinations and fantasy, but something happened that night. And whatever it was was powerful enough to make Moses gouge out his own eye.
What are you reading this week?
Related in BookPage: Mo Hayder's author page.
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.
The Professionals by Owen Laukkanen
Putnam • $25.95 • ISBN 9780399157899
March 29, 2012
Some of suspense fiction's finest—writers like Lee Child, C.J. Box and Jonathan Kellerman—have sung this novel's praises. It's no surprise, then, that the pages practically turn themselves, and all you can do is hang on for the ride once the action gets going.
Here's an excerpt about the ringleader's philosophy on kidnapping:
Of all his worries, it was greed that kept Arthur Pender awake at night. It wasn't his own greed that bothered him; Pender was happy with sixty-thousand-dollar scores. He worried, though, that the long grind would wear on his team.
Most would-be kidnappers treated the job like a Hail Mary. Tried to knock down some CEO, some pop star, tried to make ten million and disappear after one big haul. One shot for all the glory. To Pender, that kind of thinking was stupidity, plain and simple. Those heroes who aimed for the big scores always attracted the big crowds. Police. Feds. TV cameras. Publicity like that made it impossible to remain anonymous. Publicity like that meant investigations, manhunts, Wanted posters. Ultimately, publicity like that meant jail or death. Nobody got away from the Big American Machine.
Far better, then, to pull quick scores. Lower numbers, but higher volume. The Pender method. Snatch guys like Terry Harper, Martin Warner. Midlevel executives, hedge-fund managers, guys with enough cash to make the job worthwhile, with families to pay the ransoms, but with no glamour to their names. No romance. Anonymous upper-class fellas who just wanted to see things return to normal.
The Dark Rose by Erin Kelly
Pamela Dorman Books/Viking • $26.95 • on sale February 6, 2012
Her follow-up, The Dark Rose, is just as creepy (filled with characters that are just as obsessive). In it, Paul and Louisa start a secret affair against the backdrop of an old Elizabethan garden. Paul was involved in a murder and ratted out his friend to avoid prison—and Louisa has some secrets of her own surrounding a man from her past named Adam. Louisa is renovating the garden, and she meets Paul when he's appointed to work there after his confession. They are connected from the moment they meet, because Paul looks eerily like Adam.
Here's an excerpt, from when Louisa first sees Paul (and mistakes him for Adam):
Louisa turned her attention back to the ruin. No matter how many times she saw it she could never quite commit the pattern of its stalagmites to memory. She let her hands trail along the damp walls, fingers lingering in ancient graffiti faded to indecipherable rune marks, wondering as ever who had stood here before her, what they had seen, and how faithfully she would be able to re-create their view. How light her workload would be if walls had mouths as well as ears, if these old stones could guide her through her project.
She did not expect anyone else to be up on the knoll and turned a bind corner without looking, head butting a chest that was at her eye level. She took a step back and so did he, his automatic "Sorry" gaining hers. Louisa raised her eyes. The apology died on her lips as she looked into the face of Adam Glasslake.
She gulped air that was like ice water, as though she'd been running on a freezing day. Her first thought was that the strength of her longing had finally called him into being, that she had conjured his spirit. For a ghost it had to be: Adam had not aged a day, and automatically, pathetically, she put her hand up to her own cheek, conscious of how different she must look to him, how old. But his breath misted the air like hers did, and his chest, when it collided with her forehead, had been warm. This was no face in a cloud, no phantom reflection. Confused, frightened, she flattened herself against the uneven wall, fingers splayed against the stone. Adam looked even more terrified than she.
The Most Dangerous Thing by Laura Lippman
Morrow • $25.99 • ISBN 9780061706516
on sale August 23, 2011
In general, I prefer stand-alone suspense novels to series, so I was thrilled to learn that Lippman has a September book coming out that is indeed a stand alone—and not part of her series about Baltimore PI Tess Monaghan.
The Most Dangerous Thing alternates between the present and the 1970s. It's about five childhood friends who come together again after one of their group dies in a car accident . . . and a secret comes out.
Here's an early scene from the friend's funeral:
Gwen was spared funerals as a child and accepted this practice, as she accepted so many of her parents' practices, as the inarguably right thing to do. Certainly, it never occurred to her to bring Annabelle to Go-Go's visitation, and she is shocked to see how many young children are here. More disturbing, they are gathered around the open casket, inspecting Go-Go with a respectful but palpable excitement. A dead person! This is what a dead person looks like! In the fact of their bravery, how can Gwen not come forward and look as well?
A dead person this may well be, but it is not the boy she remembers and not only because he is thirty years older than the Go-Go who lives in her memory. This person is too still, his features too composed. Go-Go was never still.
"Gwen." Doris Halloran holds her hands tightly, peers into her face, as if nearsighted. "Pretty little Gwen. You look wonderful."
She does? She doesn't feel as if she looks wonderful. True, she is thin. She has no appetite as of late. But she is pretty sure that the lack of food has made her face gaunt, her hair dull and dry. Then again, maybe it's all relative. She looks better than Go-Go, for example. And better than Mrs. Halloran, whose face is white and puffy in a way that cannot be explained by mere grieving. Her eyes are like little raisins deep in an uncooked loaf, her mouth ringed by wrinkles.
I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
William Morrow • $14.99 • ISBN 9780062070753
paperback on sale May 3, 2011 • hardcover available now
I'd Know You Anywhere is about a 38-year-woman, Eliza Benedict, who was kidnapped when she was 15. Her kidnapper killed a handful of other girls, and Eliza was his only victim who survived. The mystery in the novel is the "why"—why was Eliza allowed to live? The action alternates between the present, where the killer is on death row and set to be executed, and the past, when he took Eliza. In the present—seemingly out of the blue—he has contacted Eliza and wants to explain what happened. As you might imagine, his presence turns her life upside down. . .
It's been said before and I'll say it again: Lippman is not just a great suspense writer, but she is a great writer. When the novel first came out in August, reviewer Susan Schwartzman called it a "compelling and provocative psychological thriller." I wanted to remind you of the novel again now because it comes out in paperback in two weeks. Here's an excerpt to pique your interest:
Her mouth freed, she thought for a moment about screaming her head off but found she could not make the sounds come. She was too frightened, too scared. His hands lingered near her throat. She thought about the mound of dirt where she had first seen the man, working with his shovel. He had not said, explicitly, what he had done, but she knew. He was capable of killing someone. He had done it. Elizabeth decided in that moment that she would do whatever was necessary to survive. She would endure whatever plans he had for her, as long as she was allowed to live.
"What's your name?" she whispered.
"Walter," he said. "I think sometimes I should shorten it to Walt. What do you think?"
She was terrified that there was a right answer, and she wouldn't give it. "Both are nice."
Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry
Crown • $24 • 9780307718389
On sale February 22, 2011
Sara J. Henry's debut starts with a bang—or, more literally, a splash—and doesn't let up until the final page. It's a classic "what-if" scenario: what if you were on a ferry and noticed a child falling from the ferry heading in the opposite direction? What if you jumped off the ferry to save that child?
What if that child had been pushed?
The aftermath of heroine Troy Chance's rescue of the boy, a French Canadian child named Paul, brings further complications. He doesn't seem to have been reported missing, and his arms were bound when he was thrown off the ferry. Unable to trust anyone, and increasingly concerned about the future of her shy and damaged young charge, Troy finds herself in the middle of a dangerous mystery.
I went to the doorway and it took me a moment to register that the bed was empty. No boy, no dog. For a moment I couldn't breathe. . . . My eyes went to the bedside table where we'd left the half-eaten piece of pizza. OK, missing boy, missing dog, missing half slice of pizza.
"Paul," I called out softly. "Paul, where are you? Où es-tu?"
A whine from Tiger. I eased back the hanging sheet that served as a closet door, and there was Paul crouched in the corner, one arm around Tiger, the other hand gripping the gnawed piza slice—looking as if it were perfectly normal to hide in a closet with a dog and a piece of pizza. I knelt, a careful distance away. "Good morning Paul," I said, keeping my voice steady. Would you like some breakfast? Veux-tu prendre le petit déjuner?"
He shifted but seemed unsure what to do. I snapped my fingers and Tiger obediently came toward me. "Did something frighten you?" I asked Paul. "Tu as peur?" No answer. "Paul, sweetie, come on out," I said, opening my arms and letting a little emotion into my voice.
He wouldn't look at me, and I waited a long, long moment. Finally he moved into my arms. I could feel the frailty of his limbs; I could feel his heart beating; I could almost feel his fear and confusion and loneliness. I hadn't known you could form an attachment to a person so quickly, so atavistically. Had my sisters experienced this when their children were born? I realized I would do anything to protect this child. "Je ne te blesserai jamais," I whispered to him. "I will never hurt you. Never."
And I knew I wouldn't be marching this boy down to the police station, not today, and possibly never.
You can download a chapter of the book here. What are you reading this week?