A tale of intrigue that’s thrilling enough to overcome its lack of realism.

THE SECRET EMPRESS

In Heller’s debut thriller, a retired CIA operative is recruited to protect the secret heir to China’s dynastic throne from ruthless gangsters.

Joe Wilder was once a government agent as well as a bodybuilding champion, but he’s now the founder of a billion-dollar health and fitness conglomerate. He receives word that the Chinese government plans to excessively raise the price on his contracts in Guangdong, so he immediately travels there to meet with Wen Shu Xian, the local deputy minister of trade, in order to plead his case. However, it turns out that the contracts were merely a ruse, and the minister, who goes by the name “Wendy,” reveals that she’s secretly the empress of China—the daughter of Emperor Puyi, the last emperor of the Manchu Qing dynasty. She also has a 12-year-old son and heir, Chao Li, nicknamed “Charley,” whose very existence is kept under wraps, as many people would attempt to either kill him or exploit him for personal gain. Wendy asks Joe to bring Charley to the United States, where he can live freely, without fear. Joe accepts the assignment—one for which he is well-suited, given his past as an accomplished CIA field operative. However, Wendy is found dead shortly afterward, and the Bai Lang, a criminal organization that dates back to the Opium Wars, unleashes a menacing, German “covert assassin,” named Max Sterne, among others. In this thriller, Heller conjures a remarkably ingenious premise with the secret Chinese dynasty, and he always makes sure that the plot races forward at a blistering pace throughout the novel. Along the way, he provides readers with equal measures of suspenseful and action-packed sequences. The author’s knowledge of Chinese history and culture is impressive, and even when the story doesn’t seem entirely plausible, it’s never so dubious as to be distracting. That said, the prose style can be overly earnest at times: “Who are you kidding? he thought. You’re enjoying the intrigue and the danger!” Even so, the tale remains consistently dramatic and engrossing throughout.

A tale of intrigue that’s thrilling enough to overcome its lack of realism.

Pub Date: March 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5320-6831-7

Page Count: 232

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2019

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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Proficient but eminently predictable. Amid all the time shifts and embedded backstories, the most surprising feature is how...

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THE A LIST

A convicted killer’s list of five people he wants dead runs the gamut from the wife he’s already had murdered to franchise heroine Ali Reynolds.

Back in the day, women came from all over to consult Santa Clarita fertility specialist Dr. Edward Gilchrist. Many of them left his care happily pregnant, never dreaming that the father of the babies they carried was none other than the physician himself, who donated his own sperm rather than that of the handsome, athletic, disease-free men pictured in his scrapbook. When Alexandra Munsey’s son, Evan, is laid low by the kidney disease he’s inherited from his biological father and she returns to Gilchrist in search of the donor’s medical records, the roof begins to fall in on him. By the time it’s done falling, he’s serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for commissioning the death of his wife, Dawn, the former nurse and sometime egg donor who’d turned on him. With nothing left to lose, Gilchrist tattoos himself with the initials of five people he blames for his fall: Dawn; Leo Manuel Aurelio, the hit man he’d hired to dispose of her; Kaitlyn Todd, the nurse/receptionist who took Dawn’s place; Alex Munsey, whose search for records upset his apple cart; and Ali Reynolds, the TV reporter who’d helped put Alex in touch with the dozen other women who formed the Progeny Project because their children looked just like hers. No matter that Ali’s been out of both California and the news business for years; Gilchrist and his enablers know that revenge can’t possibly be served too cold. Wonder how far down that list they’ll get before Ali, aided once more by Frigg, the methodical but loose-cannon AI first introduced in Duel to the Death (2018), turns on them?

Proficient but eminently predictable. Amid all the time shifts and embedded backstories, the most surprising feature is how little the boundary-challenged AI, who gets into the case more or less inadvertently, differs from your standard human sidekick with issues.

Pub Date: April 2, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5101-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2019

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