A superb thriller, full of pitch-perfect atmosphere.

THE SECRET SPEECH

From Smith (Child 44, 2008), an intense thriller set in the Soviet Union during the tumultuous days that followed the death of Stalin.

When Khrushchev delivered a speech to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, admitting to the paranoid excesses of his predecessor Stalin’s regime, he did much to loosen the bonds of fear that kept Soviet society in line. However, in this novel, the speech also triggers a wave of vicious reprisals against secret policemen who were responsible for some particularly brutal acts during Stalin’s reign of terror. Among those in danger is Leo Demidov, the reformed security officer with a conscience who tracked down a serial killer in Child 44. In order to redeem his brutal past, Leo has leveraged the official attention he received from catching the child killer to create a specialized homicide unit, something that would have been unthinkable under Stalin. After investigating the death of a former prison guard and having a conversation with a terrified former colleague who also winds up dead, Leo begins to put the pieces together, eventually realizing that those targeted are connected to the case of a dissident priest, a case to which Leo himself was intimately connected. When the danger expands to include the patchwork family Leo has been trying desperately to hold together, he must confront the terrible mistakes of his past to save his adopted daughter. Smith’s ability to summon the paranoia and tumult of the post-Stalin period in all its dingy glory is truly astounding, as is his detailed knowledge of both the Soviet-era bureaucracy and its underworld. His characters, from the relentless Leo, to the petty criminals who populate the underworld, to a lonely guard aboard a frozen prison ship, are perfectly formed. His depiction of dismal Soviet society feels uncannily real, and his taut plot barrels onward like a loaded prisoner train headed for the Gulag. Finally, Leo is a fantastic creation: relentless, decent and wonderfully complicated.

A superb thriller, full of pitch-perfect atmosphere.

Pub Date: May 12, 2009

ISBN: 978-0-446-40240-8

Page Count: 406

Publisher: Grand Central Publishing

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2009

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A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

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DEVOLUTION

Are we not men? We are—well, ask Bigfoot, as Brooks does in this delightful yarn, following on his bestseller World War Z (2006).

A zombie apocalypse is one thing. A volcanic eruption is quite another, for, as the journalist who does a framing voice-over narration for Brooks’ latest puts it, when Mount Rainier popped its cork, “it was the psychological aspect, the hyperbole-fueled hysteria that had ended up killing the most people.” Maybe, but the sasquatches whom the volcano displaced contributed to the statistics, too, if only out of self-defense. Brooks places the epicenter of the Bigfoot war in a high-tech hideaway populated by the kind of people you might find in a Jurassic Park franchise: the schmo who doesn’t know how to do much of anything but tries anyway, the well-intentioned bleeding heart, the know-it-all intellectual who turns out to know the wrong things, the immigrant with a tough backstory and an instinct for survival. Indeed, the novel does double duty as a survival manual, packed full of good advice—for instance, try not to get wounded, for “injury turns you from a giver to a taker. Taking up our resources, our time to care for you.” Brooks presents a case for making room for Bigfoot in the world while peppering his narrative with timely social criticism about bad behavior on the human side of the conflict: The explosion of Rainier might have been better forecast had the president not slashed the budget of the U.S. Geological Survey, leading to “immediate suspension of the National Volcano Early Warning System,” and there’s always someone around looking to monetize the natural disaster and the sasquatch-y onslaught that follows. Brooks is a pro at building suspense even if it plays out in some rather spectacularly yucky episodes, one involving a short spear that takes its name from “the sucking sound of pulling it out of the dead man’s heart and lungs.” Grossness aside, it puts you right there on the scene.

A tasty, if not always tasteful, tale of supernatural mayhem that fans of King and Crichton alike will enjoy.

Pub Date: June 16, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-2678-7

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Del Rey/Ballantine

Review Posted Online: Feb. 10, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2020

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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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