A convincing teenage protagonist and an ending that should leave readers impatiently awaiting a follow-up.

The Betrayal

Having helped stop a terrorist attack the year before, 15-year-old Will Conlan may now be a target for revenge in Kalkowski’s (Red Cell, 2010) latest thriller.

Will’s only in high school but he’s an essential part of the CIA’s Analytic Red Cell, where he and others brainstorm possible ways that terrorists could strike. The teenager’s intuition and skill led to the thwarting of a bomb plot in Chicago the preceding year. Lately, though, he’s been having a spot of bad luck: his grades mysteriously change from A’s to F’s, and his school lunch account is inexplicably empty. But when Will, girlfriend Stacey Chloupek, and a couple pals are assaulted in an apparent mugging, CIA operative (and Will’s mentor) Mark Tenepior suspects that Will’s the intended target for something sinister. The assailant had a Facebook photo of Will and his friends, but it’s a subsequent invasion of the teenager’s home that confirms Tenepior’s hunch. The CIA stashes the Conlan family at a substation, which doesn’t prevent the baddie(s) from making contact. Someone sends a football ticket to Will after abducting Stacey. If Will hopes to see his girlfriend again, he’ll have to attend an upcoming game at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska. This terrorist/kidnapper, it seems, not only wants retribution for last year’s failed strike, but may be planning another attack as well. The protagonist is a surprisingly believable hero, despite the story pitting him against terrorists. He aptly displays his indisputable intelligence in “red teaming” scenes, role-playing scenarios to develop defenses for potential attacks. Will’s mental prowess against villains’ brute strength, however, gives the character credibility, as the quick-witted teenager fends off a home invader with a curling iron and shampoo. There’s definitely dramatic tension once Will’s family and friends learn of his covert CIA status. But the novel’s missing some of the balance between normal teen life and Hollywood-esque action, at which Kalkowski’s debut excelled. The author makes up for this with unremitting tension: Will and Stacey struggling to escape restraints, paralleled with an exhilarating ongoing football game, is the story’s centerpiece. An outstanding final act forgoes resolution in favor of a ferocious cliffhanger.

A convincing teenage protagonist and an ending that should leave readers impatiently awaiting a follow-up.

Pub Date: Oct. 22, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-4917-7371-0

Page Count: 160

Publisher: iUniverse

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2015

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Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

A CONSPIRACY OF BONES

Another sweltering month in Charlotte, another boatload of mysteries past and present for overworked, overstressed forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan.

A week after the night she chases but fails to catch a mysterious trespasser outside her town house, some unknown party texts Tempe four images of a corpse that looks as if it’s been chewed by wild hogs, because it has been. Showboat Medical Examiner Margot Heavner makes it clear that, breaking with her department’s earlier practice (The Bone Collection, 2016, etc.), she has no intention of calling in Tempe as a consultant and promptly identifies the faceless body herself as that of a young Asian man. Nettled by several errors in Heavner’s analysis, and even more by her willingness to share the gory details at a press conference, Tempe launches her own investigation, which is not so much off the books as against the books. Heavner isn’t exactly mollified when Tempe, aided by retired police detective Skinny Slidell and a host of experts, puts a name to the dead man. But the hints of other crimes Tempe’s identification uncovers, particularly crimes against children, spur her on to redouble her efforts despite the new M.E.’s splenetic outbursts. Before he died, it seems, Felix Vodyanov was linked to a passenger ferry that sank in 1994, an even earlier U.S. government project to research biological agents that could control human behavior, the hinky spiritual retreat Sparkling Waters, the dark web site DeepUnder, and the disappearances of at least four schoolchildren, two of whom have also turned up dead. And why on earth was Vodyanov carrying Tempe’s own contact information? The mounting evidence of ever more and ever worse skulduggery will pull Tempe deeper and deeper down what even she sees as a rabbit hole before she confronts a ringleader implicated in “Drugs. Fraud. Breaking and entering. Arson. Kidnapping. How does attempted murder sound?”

Forget about solving all these crimes; the signal triumph here is (spoiler) the heroine’s survival.

Pub Date: March 17, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9821-3888-2

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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This thriller is taut and fast-paced but lacks compelling protagonists.

THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS

Three siblings who have been out of touch for more than 20 years grapple with their unsettling childhoods, but when the youngest inherits the family home, all are drawn back together.

At the age of 25, Libby Jones learns she has inherited a large London house that was held in a trust left to her by her birthparents. When she visits the lawyer, she is shocked to find out that she was put up for adoption when she was 10 months old after her parents died in the house in an apparent suicide pact with an unidentified man and that she has an older brother and sister who were teenagers at the time of their parents' deaths and haven't been seen since. Meanwhile, in alternating narratives, we're introduced to Libby's sister, Lucy Lamb, who's on the verge of homelessness with her two children in the south of France, and her brother, Henry Lamb, who's attempting to recall the last few disturbing years with his parents during which they lost their wealth and were manipulated into letting friends move into their home. These friends included the controlling but charismatic David Thomsen, who moved his own wife and two children into the rooms upstairs. Henry also remembers his painful adolescent confusion as he became wildly infatuated with Phineas, David’s teenage son. Meanwhile, Libby connects with Miller Roe, the journalist who covered the story about her family, and the pair work together to find her brother and sister, determine what happened when she was an infant, and uncover who has recently been staying in the vacant house waiting for Libby to return. As Jewell (Watching You, 2018, etc.) moves back and forth from the past to the present, the narratives move swiftly toward convergence in her signature style, yet with the exception of Lucy’s story, little suspense is built up and the twists can’t quite make up for the lack of deep characters and emotionally weighty moments.

This thriller is taut and fast-paced but lacks compelling protagonists.

Pub Date: Nov. 5, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-9010-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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