Sunburn by Laura Lippman (2018)

sunburn lippman

When Polly and Adam meet on a hot summer evening at a bar in a middle-of-nowhere town near the Delaware coast, their crossing paths seems curious but thrilling. Both young and good-looking, both with nowhere to be and nothing to do but kill time. As though without a thought, they take jobs a run-down bar and begin a steamy affair.

Despite appearances, both Polly and Adam have a lot going on beneath their calm surfaces. She is running from two failed marriages and a criminal past. He is in this small town not on a whim, as he suggests to Polly, but as a PI sent to track her down. Both of them keep their secrets even as their affair deepens, but both know it won’t be long before their true selves catch up with them.

Told in PI-noir manner, Lippman tells Polly and Adam’s stories slowly, deliberately revealing one layer at a time. Carefully, the author unveils small snippets of their histories — one tantalizing piece at a time — and sprinkles in just enough lies to keep the reader constantly guessing whether they know the whole story. A great read by a wonderful author.

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Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger (2015)

crazy love you

Ian Paine has fought mightily his entire life to achieve the normalcy he has craved since childhood. In the opening chapters of the book, readers find Ian successful and somewhat of a celebrity among the fans of his graphic novels. Behind the tidy facade he shows the world — a New York hipster and creative genius — is a man struggling with addiction, rage, and mental instability.

After a childhood trauma tore his family apart, Ian was left a desperately lonely boy: mother gone, father remote and largely absent, and not one single friend to rely on. Lost and confused, he wanders into the woods and stumbles across a girl living on the fringes of The Hollows. Priss does not care about Ian’s terrible family history, his obesity, his strangeness, nor his lack of friends. She become his best, and only, friend.

Inside Priss, however, there is a dark streak, an anger at the world that often shows up in unexpected ways. Ian — weak, cowardly, downtrodden — draws strength from the fiery rage that often motivates Priss to act out, take risks, and defend herself. Soon, he is letting Priss stand up to fight off his tormentors too. He learns too late that Priss cannot control her outbursts and more often than not allows her acts of defense to become violent.

As they grow up, Priss begins to exert more and more control over Ian’s life. She tempts him with alcohol, drugs, sex and he welcomes the blissful relief from anxiety and sadness that those vices bring him. Yet, as he enters his twenties, Ian begins to pull away from Priss and get his life in order. He builds a career as a graphic novelist, gets fit, and tries to limit the drinking binges and drugged out evenings Priss often suggests.

When Ian meets and falls in love with Megan, he is dizzy with relief that a normal gorgeous woman wants Fatboy, the unloveable, ugly duckling Ian fears is always lurking inside , waiting to ruin his life. Almost immediately Priss’s anger and jealous cause trouble. She starts with small pranks and modest manipulations, trying to tempt Ian away from Megan. When he resists, she becomes more and more unstable.

Ian, in an attempt to deal with the pressures of work, love, and Priss, begins to rely more and more on old vices to ease his anxieties. This only puts more strain on his relationships and beings to make Megan doubt that he is a reliable enough man to love. The harder he works at making Megan happy, the more furious Priss grows. Soon is not only his life that Priss is intent to ruin, but Megan’s as well.

A twisty story that does not come into focus until the very end, Crazy Love You was wonderful and spell-binding.

In The Blood by Lisa Unger (2014)

in the blood l unger

Lisa Unger has done it again, In the Blood is a terrifying, twisting thriller that delves deep into the psyche of its many, well-drawn characters. Unger present a story that raises questions about the role of mental illness and past trauma have in shaping a young life, and about whether or not all those who struggle can be saved or if some are born beyond saving.

Against all odds, Lana Granger has overcome a traumatic childhood to become college student who, with the help of good friends and trusted advisors, is about to successfully graduate. Lana seems normal to the outside world, but inside fights mightily to keep her past secret, even from those she loves the most. When she is hired to be a babysitter for a deeply troubled boy who struggles with a form of mental illness that makes him violent and deceptive, her own struggles as a child resurface. She is, in part, hopeful that her childhood experiences can allow her to help Luke and his mother; and partially terrified that he might be one of those kids who cannot be helped.

Immediately, Luke begins to challenge and manipulate Lana, drawing her into a series of dangerous games. Luke is obsessed with their town, The Hollows*, and its notorious reputation for being the site of several grisly murders. He devises a game (without his mother’s knowledge) for he and Lana to play, that has them looking into the people who were murdered and the places those crimes took place. What starts out as a creepy game turns much more sinister when Lana’s best friend goes missing.

Soon Lana has drawn the attention of the local police who suspect she in involved in her friend’s disappearance. Their probing into her past makes Lana feel unhinged and she begins taking greater and greater risks, both in her “games” with Luke and in her search for her friend.

In the Blood, delves deep into the lives of the mentally ill and their loved ones, shining light on the seemingly impossible task of treating and managing complex issues that, if left alone, can turn deadly. A truly outstanding book and a unique and thought-provoking story-line — impossible to put down.

*The Hollows is a town that is the setting to several of Lisa Unger’s thriller.

Die for You by Lisa Unger (2009)

die for you l unger

Is there anything better than discovering a writer whom you have never read, who has a body of work several books deep, books that are all intriguing and impossible to put down? That is how I feel about my recent “discovery” of Lisa Unger —  I’m thrilled to have so many of her excellent thrillers stacked on the bedside table, ready to be read one after another.

Isabel Raine has a lot to be thankful for when she wakes up on the last day of her “normal” life. She is a beautiful, vivacious, novelist whose books are best-sellers. She is happily married to the gorgeous and successful Marcus, and together they live a life of luxury and excess; they are the envy of many.

After a lazy morning at home together, Marcus leaves Isabel at home and heads (presumably) to work…and that is the last time she hears from him. After one day, she is furious, thinking that he is sleeping off a drinking of a binge or with another woman. After two days, she begins to panic after she receives a terrifying voicemail and then becomes the victim of an FBI raid of Marcus’ office.

When Isabel awakens in the hospital, she and Marcus are suspects in a complicated string of crimes and she must fight for the police to see that she is as much of victim as the others whom her husband has harmed. As she begins to piece together what has happened she realizes that she has no idea who she was married to all those years, everything she thought she knew about Marcus was a lie. The man she trusted above all else has robbed her of her money, her home, and just possibly may take her life.

Die for You is part of the sub-genre of thrillers in which women are duped by con-artist husbands. Unger is a clever writer with a great sense of timing and a real knack for developing characters that are sympathetic and multi-dimensional. Worth a read, but she has others that are better (specifically In The Blood and Ink and Bone.) For reviews of other Unger books, check out the “Lisa Unger” tag on this site.

Beautiful Lies by Lisa Unger (2006)

Ridley Jones is the bright and successful daughter of her wealthy, doting parents. She is living a life of freedom and exploration in New York City, made possible by her job as a writer and a large inheritance from a deceased uncle. Her life, she reflects often, has been unremarkable and trouble-free. Not for long.

When she jumps in front of a bus to save a child and becomes front page news, Ridley life is suddenly very interesting to many people, not everyone’s interest is positive.

When a photograph and newspaper clipping appear in her mail, along with a note, asking “Are you my daughter?” Ridley’s life is thrown into a tailspin. She is forced to follow a trail of strange leads into a dark and terrible underworld she knows nothing about and wishes she wanted nothing to do with; but her desire for the truth is too great.

Helped along by a sexy neighbor, a grouchy cop, and her own investigative skills she uncovers the fact that her family’s has past more sordid than she ever could have imagined.

The Red Hunter by Lisa Unger (2017)

“You cannot look into the outer world to feel safe, to feel at peace. You cannot look without for understanding or for justice. You must look within. ‘There is no external refuge.’ ” 352

Claudia and Zoe have never met and the two are living very different lives, but they linked to one another. At the beginning of their stories, the link that connects them is a terrible one: both women are the survivors of brutal attacks. As the story progresses, troubling circumstances will bring them together in a much more tangible way, but this time they will face tragedy with strength.

Seventeen years ago, newly married Claudia was giddy in love and ready to start a family when a man attacked and raped her in her apartment. The rape left Claudia pregnant with a baby whose paternity she stubbornly refused to verify, a refusal that led to the destruction of her marriage. Undaunted by these emotional and physical burdens, Claudia moved on: went to therapy, learned self-defense, and tried to raise her daughter with as much love and wisdom as she could. Today, Claudia is a middle-aged single mother, living and raising her teenage daughter in a rural New Jersey town. She works tirelessly to fix up an old mansion left to her by her father.

When she was fifteen, Zoe’s family was murdered in a home invasion and she was tortured almost to death. Her survival was fueled by her rage at what had been taken from her and by the love of an uncle who took her in. Today, Zoe is a twenty-something young woman who appears to be living an unremarkable life in New York City with her aging uncle and a part-time job. But behind that invisibility , Zoe is a fierce martial artist and fighter who considers herself a vigilante; seeking justice for those who are being victimized or abused.

Unwittingly, Claudia’s renovation of the house is the catalyst that sets into motion a series of events that will bring the two women together. The house Claudia inherited is the very site of Zoe’s torture and her parents’ murder. Her decision to renovate has brought great interest to the town’s residents and, unfortunately, the interest of the men who committed that horrible crime ten years prior.

Zoe chases down the men who murdered her parents, and those men are closing in on Claudia. All that the reader can hope for is that these two, fierce women are strong enough to never be victims again.

Bonfire by Krysten Ritter (2017)

bonfire ritter

Abigail Williams is facing her worst fear: she is returning the her rural Indiana hometown after more than a decade away. She dreads facing the cruel bullies that tormented her in high-school; dreads seeing her abusive father and the small-minded residents who turned their back on her when she needed them to help her. As much as she hates to return there, she has always known that she would be forced to.

When she fled Barrens, Indiana after high-school, the city was just beginning to settle down after public health crisis. Four girls at Abby’s high school had been exhibiting signs of a strange illness that residents feared was caused by water contaminated by a local plastics manufacturer. Just before a law-suit could be filed, one of the girls left town and the other three were forced to admit it had all be an act. Despite the revelations that the illnesses were faked, the entire episode rattled teen-aged Abby and lingered in her psyche, bringing up fears that her own mother’s death was a result of water pollution.

Present day Abby is a successful environmental lawyer whose Chicago-based firm has been asked to travel to Barrens to investigate the very same plastics company that was under-fire a decade ago. Although she is there to find evidence of recent water pollution, Abby cannot shake the feeling that she is also there to discover the real reason the girls in her high-school created such an uproar. She is convinced that the plastics company has poisoned town residents for decades and that she will be able to find evidence that the links the past health crises and present day complaints.

Abby is prepared for the local residents to put up a fight to protect the plastics company, given that they employ most of the town. What she is not prepared for is the dramatic way that being back in Barrens effects her. Facing down her former tormentors is harder in person, she finds herself unable to be cruel to them and their unexpected kindness awakens her deep-seated need for their acceptance that she longed for in school. When she finds her father forgetful and faltering with dementia, the rage she has carried with her over her father’s abuse has nowhere to go: her anger can no longer hurt him.

Soon the pressures of the case wear on Abby and she suddenly does not know who to trust, people she was sure were enemies are acting like friends. What looks like a environmental pollution case from the outside just might be be something much more sinister; if only she can get anyone to believe her.

A great novel with similarities to the movie Erin Brockovich, Meghan Abbot’s The Fever (reviewed here https://wp.me/p6N6mT-17c ) just a bit like Paula Hawkins Girl on a Train. It will make a great movie, which I suspect will star Krysten Ritter as Abby.