Adam Morgan

Feature by

More than 100 years have passed since the Autumn of the Knife, when the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. Amy Carol Reeves, author of the YA Ripper trilogy, says, “writers and readers are drawn to this story because it’s a case that will never be solved,” leaving plenty of space for imagination. Such is the case with two new Ripper-themed books by celebrated historical crime novelists Stephen Hunter (Hot Springs) and Alex Grecian (The Yard).

Both, of course, begin with blood. Stephen Hunter’s brisk, gory epistolary novel, I, Ripper, combines the memoirs of an ambitious journalist with the Ripper’s secret diary. The journalist, an Irishman who goes by “Jeb” to protect his identity, warns readers straight away:

“Make peace now with descriptions of a horrific nature or pass elsewhere. If you persevere, I promise you shall know all that is to be known about Jack. Who he was, how he selected, operated, and escaped. . . . Finally, I shall illuminate the most mysterious element of the entire affair, that of motive.”

Hunter’s version of Jack the Ripper is a cold, verbose intellectual. Beginning with the first canonical Ripper murder of Mary Ann Nichols in 1888, it’s a well-researched retelling of history full of surprising revelations. Hunter’s 19th-century London is full of striking and authentic period details—including racism, class warfare and the treatment of Jews in Victorian England—but women are relegated to the alcoholic prostitutes at the other end of a knife. “I needed to puncture her more,” the Ripper says. “Why? God in heaven knows.”

In Alex Grecian’s fourth Scotland Yard Murder Club book, The Harvest Man, the Ripper returns to London after last wreaking havoc in The Devil’s Workshop. But in this installment, Jack plays second fiddle to a villain even more horrifying: the Harvest Man, who wears a medieval plague mask and slices the faces off his victims, continuously mistaking them for his parents.

“He stared intently at the mother and father, tried to gauge the shapes of their skulls beneath the masks they wore. . . . Those were features they couldn’t hope to hide from him. He had chosen the right people this time, his own parents, spotted among the teeming masses. He was nearly sure of it.”

The Murder Club regulars are back: Detective Inspector Walter Day, his old partner Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, the forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley and even their favorite criminal informant, Blackleg. More pulpy and hardboiled than I, Ripper, Grecian's newest trades Hunter’s intricate prose for snappy dialogue in another gripping Victorian team-up. Where Hunter excels at a carefully constructed, suspense-driven plot with clear ties to history, Grecian supplies a strong cast of beloved characters and great one-liners. Although, for the record, Hunter packs a few jokes in, too (“‘Can I say ‘belly?'’’ I asked. ‘It seems rather graphic.’”).

Unfortunately, female characters in both books are largely either victims or hero’s wives. “A surface reading of the case shows only Jack the Ripper, the all-male Scotland Yard investigators, and the female victims,” says Reeves. “But we have so many cases of extraordinary women like Aphra Behn who are under-recognized in history.” Regardless, both I, Ripper and The Harvest Man are frightening, well paced, effortless reads.

More than 100 years have passed since the Autumn of the Knife, when the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. Amy Carol Reeves, author of the YA Ripper trilogy, says, “writers and readers are drawn to this story because it’s a case that will never be solved,” leaving plenty of space for imagination. Such is the case with two new Ripper-themed books by celebrated historical crime novelists Stephen Hunter (Hot Springs) and Alex Grecian (The Yard).

Feature by

2015 BookPage Summer Reads

No matter how strange or outlandish, most fantasy novels take place in a world that bears at least some resemblance to our own. 

But when a fantasy writer takes the opportunity to cast a spell over the past, it provides a different sort of magic. Two new novels put imaginative twists on history.

In Bell Weather, Dennis Mahoney (Fellow Mortals) reimagines the colonial era of the 1700s, when European empires fought over the Americas. Except in his story, the Old World is Heraldia and the New World is Floria. While the geography and historical milieu are familiar, the main departure from reality is in the details of the natural world.

The rustic town of Root in the colonies of Floria is home to a variety of miraculous flora, fauna and (as the book’s title implies) meteorological phenomena. Ember gourds burst into flame after ripening, winterbears hibernate in summer and stalker weeds roam the forest looking for defenseless plants. Cathedrals and mansions are built from pale lunarite rock, seasons change in a matter of hours, and sudden “colorwashes” transform the landscape. 

In the New World colonies, tavern owner Tom Orange rescues a mysterious woman from drowning. Her name is Molly Bell, daughter of one of the most powerful men in Floria. As a group of bandits known as the Maimers terrorize the countryside, stealing whatever part of their victims’ bodies they deem most valuable, Tom must help Molly escape the inevitable fallout from her past. 

Mahoney’s prose is lyrical and well honed, and his characters are engaging, but it’s the magical realism of the wilderness that makes this world so memorable and fascinating.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, on the other hand, takes place in a very recognizable Victorian-era London—with a few steampunk and supernatural flourishes. In 1883, a bookish Whitehall telegraph cleric named Thaniel Steepleton comes home to find someone has broken into his flat. Instead of stealing valuables, they’ve left him a mysterious gold pocket watch that winds up saving his life after a bomb is planted by Irish terrorists at Scotland Yard. Thaniel’s search for the watch’s creator leads him to one of the most interesting fictional characters in recent memory, Keita Mori.

Mori is a Japanese watchmaker who is part inventor, part mystic—he combines the deductive brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the clairvoyance of Dr. Manhattan. Thanks to his ability to see potential futures, Mori has altered the course of history several times. Among his many inventions is a sentient, clockwork octopus, which is quite possibly the highlight of the novel. Together with Oxford scientist Grace Carrow, Thaniel tries to solve the mystery of the terrorist bombings. Could they be one of Mori’s attempts to alter the future? 

Natasha Pulley’s debut is a clever detective story, a thrilling steampunk adventure and a poignant examination of the consequences of class warfare and English, Irish and Japanese nationalism in the 19th century.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

No matter how strange or outlandish, most fantasy novels take place in a world that bears at least some resemblance to our own. But when a fantasy writer takes the opportunity to cast a spell over the past, it provides a different sort of magic. Two new novels put imaginative twists on history.
Review by

Time and space are as fluid as water in Keith Lee Morris’ labyrinthine third novel, his first since 2008’s brutal The Dart League King. This time, a family road trip goes awry in the small town of Good Night, Idaho thanks to a hotel that rivals The Shining’s, a book with which Travelers Rest will inevitably be compared, though there are more definitive answers here.

The Addison family—mother, father, son and alcoholic uncle—are driving from Seattle to South Carolina when a snowstorm forces them to look for lodging in Good Night. The eponymous hotel, Travelers Rest, was once a palatial second home for the town’s high society, but fell into disrepair when the local mines dried up decades ago. After checking into the hotel, the Addisons quickly become separated in ways that are hard to describe, thanks to the shifting nature of time, space, memory, and dream in Good Night. The town is a lot like that grand staircase in Hogwarts, always rearranging itself depending on who enters and what they want.

Tonio, the father, wanders outside in the snow and follows a strange woman in silver shoes. Julia, the mother, finds an oddly familiar room on the third floor with an open roof, where she’s content to lie down and dream. Robbie, the uncle fresh out of rehab, bolts for the bar across the street, where he can’t tell if it’s the booze or the town that’s playing tricks on him. And Dewey, Julia and Tonio’s 10-year-old son, searches for his family, glimpsing them from a distance from time to time, but never quite able to reach them.

If you feel lost after the first 100 pages (and you will), don’t worry. The story is worth your confusion. In fact, it requires it. Proustian in theme but not in form, Travelers Rest is the definition of dreamlike prose. Morris’ writing is clean and cold as snow. The pages drift by just as effortlessly, lulling you into a quiet cocoon that you realize, too late, is actually something much more sinister.

Time and space are as fluid as water in Keith Lee Morris’ labyrinthine third novel, his first since 2008’s brutal The Dart League King. This time, a family road trip goes awry in the small town of Good Night, Idaho thanks to a hotel that rivals The Shining’s, a book with which Travelers Rest will inevitably be compared, though there are more definitive answers here.
Review by

For nine months The Girl on the Train has been lauded as the best thriller of 2015, but it has some real competition with the arrival of The Killing Lessons, a dark, violent novel from British author Glen Duncan (The Last Werewolf) writing under the pseudonym Saul Black. Set in San Francisco and Colorado, it’s a cross-country race to catch two serial killers that channels the atmosphere of Scandinavia’s celebrated TV noirs with female heroes like “The Killing” (Forbrydelsen) and “The Bridge” (Broen).

Rowena Cooper is baking Christmas cookies for her children when two men appear in her home in the mountains of Colorado, one holding a shotgun, the other a knife. Though they murder Rowena and her son, her 10-year-old daughter Nell manages to escape into the woods. Meanwhile in San Francisco, a team of investigators has been hunting these murderers for months, after they abducted, raped and murdered seven women in different cities before transporting their bodies to another state. The men leave objects inside their victims as a signature—a balloon, a fork, a museum flier. Lead investigator Valerie Hart isn’t sure if they’re meaningful or random, but she’s not sure of anything anymore. Once driven and naive, Valerie has become jaded, resigned and dependent on a drink ever since she “killed love” in her own heart. Though Valerie soon makes a long overdue break in the case, the only person alive who can help her identify the serial killers is young Nell, still missing in the Colorado mountains, who may have escaped one grisly fate only to meet another.

Violent but never gratuitous, Duncan’s first crack at a thriller is a master class in suspense. Phrases like “page-turner” and “it kept me up all night!” get thrown around a lot in the book business, but The Killing Lessons is hands-down the most compelling, addictive novel I’ve read this year.

For nine months The Girl on the Train has been lauded as the best thriller of 2015, but it has some real competition with the arrival of The Killing Lessons, a dark, violent novel from British author Glen Duncan (The Last Werewolf) writing under the pseudonym Saul Black.

Review by

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Greg Hrbek's fascinating, inventive second novel imagines how America would change if someone dropped an atomic bomb on San Francisco, and, in the absence of any real evidence, the U.S. government held Islamic terrorists accountable.

In a heart-stopping opening scene, college sophomore Skyler Wakefield is babysitting a 5-year-old boy when she looks out the window to see “a star falling in bright daylight” hit the Golden Gate Bridge before a shockwave tears through the house. Skyler survives just long enough to carry the toddler to a hospital, but succumbs to radiation poisoning a few hours later after a tearful phone call with her parents.

Eight years later, we meet Skyler’s 12-year-old brother, Dorian, who’s been suspended from school for writing an obscenity on the wall of a mosque bathroom. In the wake of the attack, Dorian lives in a drastically different America. Nuclear fallout has quickened climate change, borders have been redrawn into provinces and territories, and the U.S. government has corralled thousands of Muslims onto old Native American reservations. However, Dorian’s mother and father have no memory of his older sister, Skyler. Dorian was only 4 when she died in the attack, but he has recurring, detailed, seemingly clairvoyant dreams about her. Meanwhile, an elderly veteran across the street, William Banfelder, adopts an orphaned Muslim boy named Karim from the Dakota Territory with a dangerous secret.

It’s a high-concept premise that could easily veer into cliché, but Hrbek delivers a captivating story filled with nuance. Every chapter brings a surprise, and Hrbek has real knack for stunning, unforgettable images and turns of phrase. Not on Fire, But Burning boldly questions America’s moral standing since 9/11, and brings to life the horrific consequences of ignorance, fear and hate. 

 

As we mark the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Greg Hrbek's fascinating, inventive second novel imagines how America would change if someone dropped an atomic bomb on San Francisco, and, in the absence of any real evidence, the U.S. government held Islamic terrorists accountable.
Review by

Ron Rash may not have invented the “Appalachian Noir” genre, but he’s certainly perfected it over the past 15 years with modern classics like Serena and The World Made Straight. His new novel, Above the Waterfall, is another contemporary take on the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a slow-burn mystery that’s light on plot but thick with atmosphere, lyrical prose and a visceral sense of place.

The story alternates between a sheriff and a park ranger in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, whose lives become entwined by a series of escalating incidents involving family inheritances, land disputes and meth labs. The sheriff, Les, a hard-edged widower who craves solitude, is only three weeks away from retiring when a routine house call sets him down a path toward some of the hardest decisions he’s ever had to make. Meanwhile, the park ranger, Becky, tries to lose herself in nature to escape two devastating incidents from her past.  

When someone poisons the local river on property owned by an affluent fishing resort, all the evidence points to a stubborn old homesteader named Gerald Blackwelder, the closest thing Becky has to a father. Les, whose feelings for Becky are clouded by his guilt over the death of his wife, is forced to either arrest Gerald or find out if more dangerous men are involved.

Above the Waterfall harks back to Rash’s first novel, One Foot in Eden, another small-town story told from multiple perspectives, but this time there is no immediate noirish hook. Instead, Rash has crafted the finest prose of his career, whether it’s the brusque, whittled down voice of the sheriff, or the park ranger’s lush poet-speak, which allows Rash to invent words like heatsoak, streamswift, and sunspill. Don’t expect a grim, hardboiled mystery with a high body count. Above the Waterfall is another quiet, haunting ode to the natural beauty of the mountains.

 

This article was originally published in the September 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Ron Rash may not have invented the “Appalachian Noir” genre, but he’s certainly perfected it over the past 15 years with modern classics like Serena and The World Made Straight. His new novel, Above the Waterfall, is another contemporary take on the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a slow-burn mystery that’s light on plot but thick with atmosphere, lyrical prose and a visceral sense of place.
Review by

We usually celebrate our college alma maters with a sense of pride, while doing our best to forget high school altogether. But in Lori Rader-Day’s stunning second novel, a murder at a creepy roadside motel forces an unlikely heroine to revisit her painful high school years.

Somewhere in the cornfields between Chicago and Indianapolis, Juliet Townsend is trapped in a meaningless job as a maid at the seedy Mid-Night Inn in the small town of Midway, Indiana, “named for the fact that it wasn’t one place or another.” In high school, Juliet lived in the shadow of her best friend and track team rival, the beautiful and mysterious Madeleine Bell. Ten years later, Juliet’s still in town, living with her mother and scrubbing toilets after Madeleine left her behind for a glamorous life in Chicago.

Or so Juliet thinks, until the night Madeleine checks into the Mid-Night Inn. She’s still stunning, and sporting a giant diamond ring that Juliet—a kleptomaniac with a penchant for small, shiny objects—would love to get her hands on. But Madeleine isn’t there to gloat: She’s running from something and desperate to talk to Juliet. Overcome with jealousy, Juliet blows her off, and the next morning finds Madeleine’s corpse hanging from the motel balcony. When local police name her the most likely suspect, Juliet embarks on a mission to find the real killer by excavating her and Madeleine’s past as track stars at Midway High, when Madeleine mysteriously pulled out of a pivotal race and cost Juliet a scholarship.

Once again, Chicago author Rader-Day (The Black Hour) delivers a breathless psychological thriller with a killer first line, an irresistible mystery and lean chapters soaked with suspense. Comparisons to Tana French (A Secret Place) and Paula Hawkins (The Girl on the Train) have become all too common in the mystery genre, but with two consistently great novels now under her belt, Rader-Day has proved their equal in crafting taut, literary mysteries with fascinating heroines.

We usually celebrate our college alma maters with a sense of pride, while doing our best to forget high school altogether. But in Lori Rader-Day’s stunning second novel, a murder at a creepy roadside motel forces an unlikely heroine to revisit her painful high school years.

Review by

No book will ever make you thirstier than The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s (The Windup Girl) action-packed return to hard science fiction, in which the American Southwest is ravaged by drought.

In the not-too-distant future, climate change has turned the Colorado River Basin into a dust bowl. California, Nevada and Arizona wage hot and cold war over aquifers, dams and water rights. The wealthiest 1 percent live in lush, self-sustaining “arcologies” (architecture + ecology), while the cities and suburbs of old are riddled with crime and desperation.

California has the upper hand thanks to foreign water corporations, and Arizona is a militarized backwater. But the most powerful woman in Las Vegas—Catherine Case—has a secret weapon named Angel Velasquez. He’s one of her “water knives,” soldiers trained to secure fresh water resources by any means necessary. Angel is sent to investigate a potentially game-changing source of water in the most unlikely of places: Phoenix. There, his fate becomes entwined with those of a determined journalist and a teenage refugee from Texas. Together, they follow the trail of a near-mythical artifact that could shift the balance of power in the war for water.

Bacigalupi’s nightmarish vision of a dystopian America ruined by greed, bureaucracy and environmental disaster is both horrifying and prescient. It takes a few chapters to gather momentum and orient the reader, but once the story finds its stride, the pages turn themselves. The Water Knife is a thoughtful, frightening, all-too-likely vision of the future.

 

This article was originally published in the June 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

No book will ever make you thirstier than The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s (The Windup Girl) action-packed return to hard science fiction, in which the American Southwest is ravaged by drought.
Review by

Bosnian-born author Aleksandar Hemon’s fiction has always been a sobering, sometimes bleak look at the lives of immigrants and exiles in Chicago who are not unlike the writer himself (see The Lazarus Project and Love and Obstacles). But in a dramatic change of pace and tone, his new novel, The Making of Zombie Wars, is an eccentric comedy, albeit one with the same level of subtlety and resonance we’re accustomed to from Hemon, a MacArthur “genius grant” winner.

An aspiring writer from an affluent Chicago suburb who never finishes anything he starts, Joshua Levin has never had to suffer much. His life is “a warm blanket,” in contrast to the lives of the immigrants he teaches as an ESL instructor, and his creative endeavors have been as futile and disheartening as the Cubs at nearby Wrigley Field. That is, until Joshua comes up with an idea for a script called Zombie Wars that could be his big break, and the sad but beautiful Bosnian woman in his class, Ana, starts to seduce him.

Of course, Ana is married, and Joshua just moved in with his girlfriend. As Ana turns his life upside down, Joshua finally has some real-life drama to funnel into his writing. Excerpts from Joshua’s script draw parallels between a zombie apocalypse and the culture-cannibalizing effects of war and exile, be it in Hemon’s native Bosnia or in Iraq, which U.S. forces have only just begun to invade when the novel opens in 2003.

As the story oscillates between hysterical and heartbreaking, Hemon once again renders the city of Chicago authentically, forgoing the whitewashed suburbs of John Hughes movies and invoking the city’s social and cultural realities as faithfully as Alex Kotlowitz. The wit and intelligence of The Making of Zombie Wars should please Hemon fans and entice new readers.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Comedy, culture and . . . zombies?
Review by

Brendan Duffy’s fantastic debut novel is gloomy, small-town Gothic horror in the vein of "Twin Peaks," Alan Wake and The Shining.

After a few rough years in Manhattan, a “semi-famous” author named Ben Tierney relocates his wife and sons to a remote village in the Adirondack Mountains. He hopes that renovating a sprawling, neglected estate called the Crofts and turning it into an inn will provide his family with a new sense of purpose. But isolated on a forested cliff overlooking town, it doesn’t take long for things to get thoroughly weird.

Deer carcasses appear on the Tierneys’ property, the remains ripped apart and barely recognizable. Strange artifacts turn up in the estate’s cavernous cellar, maps and letters and ancient books. Townspeople stare and whisper about “the winter families” whenever Ben ventures down into the valley. And one night, while Ben’s wife is cooking dinner, an explosive sound vibrates through the house. Ben finds a back door swinging open and shut in the wind, the lock smeared with tree sap.

“He turned on the exterior lights and looked out the glass. Placed in the center of the stoop like the morning’s newspaper was a severed deer’s head, staring at him with black, blood-flecked eyes.”

Most disturbing of all, Ben’s older son Charlie is convinced that someone, or something, is watching them from the woods. As a neo-Gothic horror novel, House of Echoes succeeds because it contains no familiar creatures. There are no ghosts here, despite some surface similarities to Chris Bohjalian’s The Night Strangers. There are no witches or werewolves. Duffy knows that true horror has neither name nor face. Grounded by emotional realism and nuanced characters, House of Echoes is intense, addictive and genuinely creepy.

Brendan Duffy’s fantastic debut novel is gloomy, small-town Gothic horror in the vein of "Twin Peaks," Alan Wake and The Shining.

Review by

At first glance, The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering looks like Interstellar meets The Stand. Centuries from now, in a post-scientific society where astronomy “is regarded as a delusional cult scarcely more respectable than Jesus Lovers,” a powerful corporation discovers a perfectly intact Orion spacecraft hidden beneath the ruins of Cape Canaveral, along with detailed instructions from NASA on how to launch a voyage to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.

Meanwhile in Miami, Rowan Van Zandt is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a tour bus, until he’s offered a deal by Bosom Industries: pilot the spacecraft with his brother, mother and father, and avoid serving time.

But the story of the Van Zandt family isn’t a quixotic space mission. In a frame narrative set 10 years after the discovery, Rowan records his coming-of-age story from the Paranal Observatory in Chile, home of the world’s only remaining telescope. So it’s clear from Chapter 1 that Rowan, at least, never leaves Earth, making comparisons to Interstellar misleading at best. Instead of a high-stakes adventure through the solar system, Rowan’s journey across the dystopic remnants of America is a dark comedy, a clever, funny satire on the way reality is distorted by time and willful ignorance.

Rotter’s second novel is just as funny as his first (The Unknown Knowns), and—in our own age of populist challenges to science—just as topical. “It is a comfort,” Rowan posits eerily, “to know how swiftly and thoroughly a civilization can crumble when nobody wants it anymore.”

At first glance, The Only Words That Are Worth Repeating looks like Interstellar meets The Stand. Centuries from now, in a post-scientific society where astronomy “is regarded as a delusional cult scarcely more respectable than Jesus Lovers,” a powerful corporation discovers a perfectly intact Orion spacecraft hidden beneath the ruins of Cape Canaveral, along with detailed instructions from NASA on how to launch a voyage to Europa, Jupiter’s icy moon.

Sign Up

Stay on top of new releases: Sign up for our enewsletters to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres.

Trending Features

Sign Up

Sign up to receive reading recommendations in your favorite genres!