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STARRED REVIEW

November 9, 2022

12 fantasy romances you have to read

Escape into magical worlds full of love and adventure.

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Freya Marske’s follow-up to her acclaimed debut, A Marvellous Light, is a stunning, sensual companion novel that follows the threads of the same overarching mystery: a threat to the magical community in Edwardian England. A Restless Truth focuses on Maud Blyth, sister to A Marvellous Light’s Robin, as she discovers her own strengths and explores her sexuality in this magical murder mystery. 

Maud is working as a lady’s companion for the older and sometimes aggravating magician Elizabeth Navenby aboard the transatlantic ocean liner Lyric. When Mrs. Navenby is found dead in her room with several valuable items missing, Maud suspects foul play. As Maud learns more about her employer’s life, she realizes the murder may be connected to the mission Robin and his partner, Edwin, pursued in the first book in the series: to protect three artifacts so powerful they can affect all of the magic in the world.

A delightfully brash and boisterous cast of possible suspects and allies drives the story. There’s Lord Hawthorne, a gentleman with a reputation for sexual prowess; Alan Ross, a shady journalist with a keen ear for gossip; and Violet Debenham, an alluring actor-turned-heiress whose scandalous past only makes her all the more enticing. As they turn the decks of the Lyric upside down in their search for the killer and the objects they stole, Maud is the relatable center of the storm. She’s an immediately engaging protagonist, both because of her desire to prove herself to her brother and the magician community and because of her evolving understanding of her sexuality. Marske conjures yet another spellbinding romance, this time between Maud and Violet, who is as sharp-tongued and adventurous as Maud is wide-eyed and curious. Sparks fly between the two young women upon their first meeting, but will their connection last after the murder is solved? 

A Restless Truth is a thrilling mystery and a lush historical fantasy that will leave readers breathless—both from its exciting plot twists and its captivating romance.

Freya Marske’s follow-up to A Marvellous Light is a stunning, sensual love story wrapped in an exciting murder mystery.

Given our culture’s widespread embrace of all things nerdy and the ever-increasing popularity of romance novels, it’s no surprise that readers are flocking to stories of true love in magical realms and soulmates bantering their way through intergalactic intrigue.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches

Mika Moon has a large following online, dazzling her audience with potions and her sparkling personality. The difference between Mika and other young women posing as witches with vlogs is that Mika is actually a witch. Taught to keep her abilities under wraps by her overbearing guardian, Mika knows that the biggest rule of witchcraft is that you never talk about witchcraft. Still, she believes her online activities are innocuous enough: After all, who would truly believe that witches exist? When a mysterious estate called Nowhere House entreats her to come and train a group of three young witches who don’t have control over their powers, Mika is immediately intrigued—and worried. After all, generations of witches have stayed safe by not congregating or doing anything suspicious. But she goes anyway, armed with nothing but her trusty dog, Circe, and a winning smile. At Nowhere House, Mika quickly runs into problems, not just from her young charges but also from Jamie, a testy librarian with trust issues who can’t decide if Mika is the answer to their problems or an even bigger problem herself. But as Mika settles into her role, she begins to understand that Jamie’s thorny exterior guards a man who may not be nice but is kind. And his steadfast presence might just be enough for Mika to lower the walls around her own heart.

In The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches, author Sangu Mandanna tells a story of found family, taking chances and, of course, romance. Mandanna combines two classic rom-com tropes—forced proximity and a grumpy-sunshine pairing—with the charm of the English countryside, evoking restrained yet fluffy tales of governesses and duty but in a modern setting. Like a good cup of tea, Mandanna’s novel warms you from the inside out. It’s got just enough sugar and cream to bring a smile to your face but not so much that it seems saccharine.

—Laura Hubbard

Eclipse the Moon

Jessie Mihalik returns to her Starlight’s Shadow series with Eclipse the Moon, an action-packed, sci-fi romance with a central couple that readers will adore.

A hacker and bounty hunter aboard the spaceship Starlight’s Shadow, Kee Ildez needs a break from the ship’s close quarters and the presence of one of her alien crewmates, steely Valovian weapons expert Varro Runkow. She thinks a few weeks of solo investigation on the space station Bastion, where someone seems to be trying to start a war between the humans and the Valovians, will help her shake off her frustrating attraction to Varro. But her plan is upended when she realizes that he has followed her onto the space station. As tensions rise between human and Valovian designers during a fashion exhibit, Kee tries to stay professional and keep her mind on her mission. The peace between the two races has been tentative at best, and even something seemingly innocuous could plunge the galaxy into war.

Mihalik moves the plot along quickly, mixing deadly intrigue, fast-paced action and political diplomacy. Kee and Varro are incontrovertible heroes, and Mihalik embraces the idea of good triumphing over evil, giving Eclipse the Moon a vaguely old-fashioned, space Western-esque feel. Their romance unfolds slowly, as their mutual attraction comes to a head amid the danger on Bastion. The mystery plot often takes center stage, which will please more drama- and action-oriented readers. But Mihalik knows her audience and makes sure to include some very steamy moments amid all the dangerous tension and close combat.

—Amanda Diehl 

A Taste of Gold and Iron

A Taste of Gold and Iron is a slow-burn romance wrapped in a fantasy novel full of court intrigue. Alexandra Rowland’s latest novel opens as Prince Kadou of Arasht has made a grievous political misstep, one that leaves two of his own bodyguards dead and angers both his sister, who happens to be the sultan, and the father of her child. In an attempt to save face for the royal family, Kadou is temporarily banned from court and assigned a new bodyguard, Evemer. Evemer’s disdain for Kadou is matched only by his dedication to formality and protocol, but what he lacks in congeniality he makes up for in skill and dedication. As Kadou and his household are pulled into a conspiracy of break-ins and money forgery, Kadou will have to trust Evemer if he is to pull the royal family out of harm’s way.

Political intrigue dominates much of A Taste of Gold and Iron, so those looking for a book that primarily centers a love story would do well to look to other avenues. However, for readers who enjoy forced proximity and bodyguard romances, A Taste of Gold and Iron offers both, wrapped in a delightful package of espionage and royal duty. In addition to their deft handling of multiple conspiracies and political disputes, Rowland also impresses in their nuanced depiction of anxiety. Kadou has panic attacks that leave him vulnerable to manipulation from both political opponents and his own staff. The story’s acceptance of Kadou’s anxiety expands A Taste of Gold and Iron‘s focus from romantic love to trust and vulnerability as well.

—Laura Hubbard

These reads from writers Sangu Mandanna, Jessie Mihalik and Alexandra Rowland have a couple to root for and a world to get totally lost in.

In Francesca May’s stunning, gorgeously composed fantasy debut, Wild and Wicked Things, a dissipated coven of witches and a meek young woman become unexpected allies.

Annie Mason has led a quiet and ordinary life. When her estranged father dies shortly after the end of World War I, she reluctantly travels to Crow Island to take care of his estate. The island also happens to be the very place her former best friend, Bea, resides in a fancy house on the sea with her new husband. Crow Island is famous across the land for its faux magic parlors and fake spells and potions, but Annie soon learns that its inhabitants also practice true, darker-than-imagined magic. When she rents a summer cottage next to the infamous Cross House, where a coven throws lavish parties that feature Prohibited magic, Annie is given an opportunity to find a place—and maybe a person—that actually feels like home.

May seamlessly transports readers to the shores of Crow Island, straight into the shoes of Annie and de facto coven leader Emmeline Delacroix. Annie is whisked away by the island’s enchantment, and May’s prose echoes F. Scott Fitzgerald to capture the finery and wild parties of the era. And while Annie originally thinks she’s being bewitched by the coven’s magic or the island, she comes to realize that she is simply following her innermost desires. The supposedly cursed island gives her time and space to come to terms with grief over lost loved ones and her internalized shunning of her sapphic sexuality. Emmeline’s inexplicable and undeniable magnetism is a clever plot complication but also the perfect setup for a passionate, slow-burning queer romance that feels forged in destiny.

Under all the glamour, Wild and Wicked Things is also a nuanced exploration of intergenerational trauma and abusive relationships. Emmeline hovers over her adoptive siblings, Isobel and Nathan, even though their abusive guardian, coven founder Cilla, is long gone. Annie finds herself in a similar situation as she tries to shield Bea from a marriage gone wrong, and she and Emmeline bond over their roles as protectors and healers. But nothing is truly black and white, from the witches’ backstories and intentions, to Bea’s desires, to Annie’s past. May does not shy away from the macabre, and every twist is better and eerier than the last.

May’s thrilling fantasy takes familiar tropes, mashes them with a mortar and pestle, sprinkles them with a bit of herbs and throws them into the cauldron, creating a fresh and exciting take on witchy historical fantasy.

Wild and Wicked Things is a stunning, gorgeously composed historical fantasy with a compelling queer romance at its heart.
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In The League of Gentlewomen Witches, India Holton returns to the Dangerous Damsels, her magical romp of a series complete with flying houses, adventuring pirates and tenacious witches. In this fast-paced enemies-to-lovers romance, a witch destined to take over a secret society teams up with a roguish pirate captain to recover a stolen amulet.

Charlotte Pettifer is a descendent of the famed Beryl Black, founder of the Wicken League, which fosters the talents of both young and experienced witches. It’s Charlotte’s birthright to lead the league, just like her ancestor, and she’s always thought that her destiny was also her dream job. But a treasure-hunting pirate makes her reconsider her future. When Beryl Black’s long-lost amulet resurfaces, Captain Alex O’Riley sets out to claim it—and so does Charlotte, by stowing away on Alex’s flying house.

India Holton reveals which fictional sorceresses she’d want in her own coven.

Close quarters turn Charlotte and Alex’s rapid-fire banter into a sort of foreplay, but despite their mutual antagonism, their romance skews more toward the sweet and heartwarming end of the spectrum. The dashing, daring Alex provides the perfect foil for buttoned-up and duty-bound Charlotte. It’s not exactly a grumpy-meets-sunshine pairing—more like a stuffy character falling for a free-spirited one. Alex oozes charm; he already made a grand first impression in Holton’s debut, The Wisteria Society for Lady Scoundrels, and he will further secure his spot in readers’ hearts here. They will immediately understand why Charlotte is envious of Alex’s freedom, especially as the weight of becoming the head of the Wicken League looms over her. His very existence and infectious spontaneity make Charlotte waver on her commitment to the league. Can she really live the life she wants while also fully committing to the role of leader?

Holton takes readers on a wild ride through a fun, limitless world, where frivolity and whimsy reign supreme and skilled swordwork and grand displays of magic abound. It’s all a hodgepodge of delightful silliness, with over-the-top action, exaggerated villainy and the fact that it’s possible to fall in love with your sworn enemy while recovering an ancient amulet. Think Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride with a dash of Austen-esque comedy of manners. And then crank that all up to 11.

It’s impossible to know where the series will go next, but after finishing The League of Gentlewomen Witches, readers will be completely on board for more of Holton’s imaginative, rollicking romances.

Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride, with a dash of Austen-esque comedy of manners, in India Holton’s imaginative, rollicking romance.
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A River Enchanted, Rebecca Ross’ adult fiction debut, is an elegant fantasy novel of homecoming and mystery. With its lyrical prose and tight world building, this story is both modern and timeless, drawing from the traditions of genre greats like Steven Lawhead and marrying them to the sensibilities of modern works like Genevieve Gornichec’s The Witch’s Heart and Tana French’s In the Woods.

The novel opens with the prodigal Jack Tamerlaine’s return to Cadence, the isle of his youth, a land where magic and spirits run free and gossip is carried on the wind as easily as smoke. He soon learns that young girls are going missing on Cadence, seemingly plucked from the air by a formless spirit, leaving no trace of them behind. Adaira, heiress to the laird and Jack’s childhood nemesis, has summoned Jack back to the island to help her find out exactly what has happened to the girls—and to get them back before it’s too late. She wants him to sing down the spirits as her mother once did so that Adaira can ask them what matter of mischief is afoot. But as Jack and Adaira delve deeper into the mystery, the spirits begin to suggest that a far darker secret lies behind the loss of the girls.

Already known for her young adult fantasy novels, Ross has created a world both rich and wonderful in Cadence. The island is full of so much magic, so many feuds and stories—enough that capturing them all in one novel, even a nearly 500-page one, seems a difficult task. But somehow Ross succeeds, guiding readers through the intricate warp and weft of the island and its traditions and creating a brilliant tapestry full of mystery and wonder. And while Ross does revel in world building, she doesn’t tell her story at a remove. The four characters that the book centers on—Jack, Adaira, guardsman Torin and healer Sidra—are vibrant and fully realized, keeping the myth-making quality of the book at bay and instead grounding the story in these characters’ heartaches and fears, their desires and attractions. A sublime mix of romance, intrigue and myth, A River Enchanted is a stunning addition to the canon of Celtic-inspired fantasy.

A sublime mix of romance, intrigue and myth, A River Enchanted is a stunning addition to the canon of Celtic-inspired fantasy.

Heather Walter’s debut novel, Malice, transforms the familiar fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a captivating fantasy romance between the storybook Princess Aurora and the dark sorceress Alyce.

Walter’s immersive world building plunges readers into the Briar Kingdom, built on a system of inequality and discrimination. The fae, known as Graces, are kept as magical servants for cold-blooded mortal nobles. The Graces can create beauty and light, but Alyce’s magic seems to produce only ugliness and pain. Known as the Dark Grace, Alyce is the last descendant of a type of fae known as the Vila, and her relationship with the other fae is complicated—some avoid her, all fear her and most are willing to throw her under the bus. 

When Alyce decides to attend a masquerade ball despite not being invited, she is outed as the dark fairy by one of Princess Aurora’s failed and jealous suitors. Alyce flees, but Aurora runs after her and Alyce is shocked at how down-to-earth the princess is. Aurora must find her true love by age 21 or she will be cursed to sleep forever. She has been kissed by many noblemen, often strangers, to try and break the curse, but none have succeeded. As Alyce and Aurora grow closer, the Dark Grace becomes determined to find a way to break the spell.

Told through the puckish voice of Alyce, Malice is a sympathetic take on the traditionally one-dimensional figure of the dark fairy. Alyce’s wry wit and determination to save Aurora make her instantly sympathetic, a refreshing change from other fairytale retellings that attempt to conjure some meticulous, outlandish backstory to explain the evil doings of a nefarious character. Alyce is feared, yes, but for things she’s had from birth and can’t control. Her growing love for Aurora and her increasing resistance to the status quo shine through her gloomy outlook, and as she learns about the history of Briar and the truth behind the treatment of the fae, Alyce learns some unexpected truths about her powers as well.

This heartfelt, ever-escalating story of true love burns bright, encouraging readers to brush aside shame or condescension and follow their hearts.

Heather Walter’s debut novel, Malice, transforms the familiar fairytale of Sleeping Beauty into a dark and compelling fantasy romance between the storybook princess and the dark sorceress Alyce.

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Escape into magical worlds full of love and adventure.
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Best 2022 thrillers so far
STARRED REVIEW

September 17, 2022

The 18 best thrillers of 2022—so far

Summer is about to fade into the rearview, so it’s time to take stock of the most shocking, can’t-put-them-down thrillers of 2022 before we plunge into the darker months ahead.

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Megan Miranda knows how to land a twist, and her latest thriller demonstrates that to dizzying effect. Set in an isolated and hazardous pocket of the Appalachian Mountains, The Last to Vanish elegantly builds a near-gothic atmosphere as it tells the story of an inn with a troubled past and the locals who are keeping deadly secrets.

Abigail Lovett loves her quiet job at the Passage Inn in Cutter’s Pass, North Carolina. The inn butts up against the Appalachian Trail, catering to guests looking to lose themselves in nature. Unfortunately, Cutter’s Pass has a dark history of people becoming lost for good. Decades ago, a group of college students, dubbed the Fraternity Four, vanished while on a hike. Over the years, two women also disappeared. Most recently, a journalist named Landon West set out to write about the strange history of Cutter’s Pass only to disappear himself. Now Landon’s brother, Trey, has arrived at the Passage Inn to try and find clues to his brother’s whereabouts. Most of the town’s residents attribute the mysterious goings-on to accidents on the trail, but Landon’s disappearance unsettled Abby, and now she’s starting to wonder if they are all connected.

A pervasive sense of unease runs throughout The Last to Vanish, whether Abby is facing the dangers of the mountains or the sneaking suspicion that the locals are monitoring her every move. The Passage Inn is a character in itself with quirks, secrets and dark basement rooms. Facing all these strange happenings at what used to be her comforting, calm place of work further spooks Abby: The phones keep going down, and one of her co-workers quits with only a brief note explaining her departure.

As the novel progresses, Miranda slowly gives readers more information about Abby, which only leads to more questions: Where did she come from before she, rather suddenly, arrived in Cutter’s Pass, and why did she decide to live and work at the inn in the first place? She’s not quite an unreliable narrator but rather one whose personal details are revealed with careful precision by Miranda, who ensures that Abby is fascinating, not frustrating. 

A perfectly balanced cross between a cold-case mystery and a psychological thriller, The Last to Vanish‘s expert plotting and surprising twists will delight readers.

Megan Miranda's latest is a perfectly balanced cross between a cold-case mystery and a psychological thriller that features a fascinating amateur sleuth.
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In Sarah Gailey’s latest thriller, a woman returns to her childhood home and comes face to face with the trauma of her youth.

Just Like Home opens with Vera Crowder returning to the house her father built to care for her ailing mother. Daphne Crowder—who insists Vera call her Daphne, not Mom—is barely alive, a pale imitation of the strict mother figure readers get glimpses of through Vera’s flashbacks: “The cold authority had drained out of Vera’s mother like brake fluid from a cut line.”

It is immediately apparent that something violent and bizarre, something far worse than standard mother-daughter tension, has ruptured Vera and Daphne’s relationship. When people recognize Vera in town, they react with horror, and when her past is revealed at work, she loses her job almost immediately. Just Like Home reveals the facts of the Crowder House tragedy early on but unearths the emotional fallout of the events expertly and slowly, meditating on the possible culpability of everyone involved.

In addition to being an excellently crafted thriller, Just Like Home is scary enough to satisfy horror fans, particularly those who revel in disturbing images and suffocating settings. Gailey lends the Crowder House all the intensity of a living being as claustrophobic scenes unravel within its dilapidated walls.

An excavation of tense and toxic family dynamics, Just Like Home uses atmospheric scenes of supernatural horror to unpack the impact of a traumatic event. And Gailey goes even further, observing throughout their terrifying tale that any of us could be haunted—whether by gender ideology, the weight of secrets or the actions of our family members—while bravely refusing to offer clear-cut answers about the nature of good and evil.

An excavation of toxic family dynamics, Sarah Gailey's Just Like Home uses atmospheric scenes of supernatural horror to reveal the terrors that haunt us all.

A decade ago, Kat Roberts was an L.A. Times rookie, part of a team working on a high-profile news story about a predatory high school principal. In hopes of jump-starting her career, Kat decided to conduct her own secret side investigation and wow her new boss with the results. But things went terribly wrong, and to this day, she blames the person who sparked her interest in the side story: a young woman named Meg.

Fifteen years ago, Ron Ashton rendered a teenaged Meg Williams homeless. Her mother fell in love with the successful real estate developer and was grateful when he agreed to help refinance their beloved home. Alas, he lied about the documentation as well as about his intentions; Meg’s mom died not long after, leaving her daughter alone to deal with unresolved grief and sudden housing insecurity. 

But an incandescently angry Meg determinedly clawed her way to solvency one con job at a time, with impeccably thorough research as her secret weapon and terrible men as her favored targets. She’s become very, very good at conning people: As she asserts in the opening pages of Julie Clark’s intricate and engrossing The Lies I Tell, “By the time you’re saying nice to meet you, I’ve already known you for months. Does this worry you? It should.” 

Why Julie Clark refuses to write unreliable female narrators.

In present-day Los Angeles, a Google alert lets Kat know that Meg’s returned to town, right in the middle of Ashton’s run for state senate. A strong researcher herself, Kat has some idea of Meg’s backstory, plus her current false identity as a real estate agent. Kat resolves to use that information to launch a con of her own: She’ll pose as a potential buyer, befriend Meg and twist trust into revenge. Or will she?

It’s an exciting premise, bolstered by intriguingly detailed descriptions of Meg’s various ruses, compelling character growth and lots of slow-building tension via complex manipulation. Clark, author of New York Times bestseller The Last Flight, has yet again crafted a fascinating pair of women who wrestle with trauma, sexism, identity and whether it’s ever okay to do bad things for good reasons.

Julie Clark's intricate and engrossing suspense novel is the story of a con artist, a reporter and whether it's okay to do bad things for good reasons.

What better to read on a hot summer day than a chilling thriller set in, well, Iceland? In Outside, Reykjavik native and internationally bestselling author Ragnar Jónasson turns the snowy “fjord-indented coastline [and] reindeer-haunted wilderness” of the Nordic island’s eastern highlands into an antagonist just as dangerous to the book’s central characters as the murderer (or perhaps murderers?) in their midst.

At first, there’s no thought of life-threatening peril when four college friends reunite for a woodsy weekend hike to hunt ptarmigan and catch up on one another’s lives. There’s Daniel, an aspiring actor who lives in London; Gunnlaugur, an argumentative lawyer; Helena, an inscrutable engineer; and Ormann, a wealthy tour company owner and leader of their trip.

An unexpected blizzard catches the quartet off guard, its fierce winds and zero visibility sending them into survival mode. Ormann knows of a hut they can hole up in until the worst of the weather passes—but just getting there is onerous as the snow piles higher, the air gets colder and the mostly amateur hikers’ nerves become frayed.

Once they get to the cabin, things get even scarier as frustration transforms into fear and life-or-death decisions are made more difficult by years-old resentments boiling up to the surface. Their paranoia grows in the cabin’s suffocatingly small space as Helena thinks to herself, “Guns, isolation, fear, and uncertainty—they were such an explosive cocktail.”

Jónasson inspires fast page turns via quick cuts among the four characters as they reflect on the past (so many secrets!) and frantically strategize about the present. Mini cliffhangers keep the story humming along; the author doesn’t shy away from ending chapters with lines like, “He had never been so afraid in his life.”

Spare prose and brisk pacing make for an immersive read that’s less about the individual characters and more about what they become when they’re forced together, no longer able to dissemble or hide. Will they work together to save themselves before it’s too late? Can they? Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.

Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.

A Riley Sager novel is a guaranteed wild ride, and the New York Times bestseller’s hotly anticipated sixth book, The House Across the Lake, is no different. Sager is the literary equivalent of a master chef, using a deft hand to configure tasty ingredients—a complex, grieving woman with alcoholism; a missing supermodel with dangerous secrets behind her dazzling smile; and the picturesque lake that brings them together—then adding a generous pinch of pulp and a delicious surprise at the end. The result is an addictive beach read that fans will devour in one sitting and leave feeling thoroughly sated.

Rear Window meets Lake Placid in the story of Casey Fletcher, a character actress with a complicated legacy. Her mother, legendary musical theater performer Lolly Fletcher, who prefers hoofing it on stage to providing emotional support, has shipped her off to the family cottage and ordered Casey to relax and reflect. Casey is also supposed to stay sober, which is all but impossible given her grief over the recent accidental death of her husband, Len, in the lake right next to the cottage. Enter Tom and Katherine Royce, a tech mogul and retired model, respectively, who are staying in the glass house across the lake. A tentative friendship between the women ensues, but soon after, Katherine disappears without a trace. Is Tom responsible? How about hunky handyman Boone? Or do the answers lie in the body of water that claimed the love of Casey’s life?

Sager (Survive the Night, Home Before Dark) balances the novel’s short timeline and limited setting with rich characterization for all, especially Katherine, whom the reader meets as she nearly drowns in the dark, freezing lake, and Casey, whose never-ending supply of snarky one-liners and wisecracks never quite camouflages the deep emotional turmoil that ended her once-successful acting career. The House Across the Lake is a psychological thriller that’s thoroughly personality-driven, following women whose motives, means and opportunities are as murkily fascinating as the titular loch.

Riley Sager’s latest thriller is an addictive beach read that fans will devour in one sitting—and leave feeling thoroughly sated.

There comes a point in many people’s lives when they wonder, what if I could start over? What if I could be someone else, free of the baggage and the travails that have accumulated until now? In Chris Pavone’s suspenseful new novel, Two Nights in Lisbon, recently married couple Ariel Price and John Wright have shirked their former identities for new lives unfettered by past encumbrances.

Or so they think.

Only Pavone knows their secrets, and he reveals them slowly and deliberately, expertly seeding the novel with intrigue and suspense, one page at a time.

Chris Pavone on why no one gets a fresh start in his new thriller.

While accompanying John on a business trip to Lisbon, Portugal, Ariel awakes to an empty bed. She immediately reports John’s absence to the police and, when they don’t appear to be overly concerned, the American embassy. The authorities have plenty of questions for which she only has vague answers, because John has his own secrets; decades of his life are unknown to her. Her panic intensifies as his absence lengthens, and then her worst fears are confirmed with the arrival of a ransom note. As Ariel learns more about John, and Pavone reveals more of Ariel’s secrets, the collision of both characters’ pasts and presents fuels the increasingly thrilling tension.

“We tell ourselves stories about each other, about ourselves too, our pasts. We construct our narratives,” Pavone writes. “Maybe she doesn’t know her husband at all.” Pavone himself had to reinvent his life in 2015, when he left a successful career as a book editor to move to Luxembourg with his wife. His Edgar and Anthony Award-winning debut The Expats explored this territory, and Two Nights in Lisbon proves that it’s still fertile ground, packed with stay-awake-all-night thrills for readers.

Chris Pavone's latest novel is packed with stay-awake-all-night thrills as it follows a recently married couple with no shortage of secrets.

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Recent Features

As summer fades in the rearview, it's time to catch up on the year's best thrillers so far! Our 18 favorites include the latest from Megan Miranda, Chris Pavone, Sarah Gailey, Riley Sager & more.
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Rom-coms
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July 13, 2021

33 rom-coms that are actually funny

These books will make you swoon and laugh—guaranteed.

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A cozy small town. A quaint Main Street lined with quirky family-owned shops. Community events—farmers markets, pumpkin carving contests, Christmas tree lightings—attended by everyone. A plucky, adorable heroine finds love with the gorgeous guy who drove her crazy, right up until their nonstop sparring turned into love.

We all know the formulas. Like receiving a gift-wrapped bicycle, the joy doesn’t come from wondering, “Whatever could this be?” but rather from the instant recognition that you’ve gotten exactly what you want. Sweetness? Check. Warm fuzzies? Check. Happily ever after? Checkmate.

As Seen on TV

In Meredith Schorr’s debut, As Seen on TV, Adina Gellar has let made-for-TV movies convince her that everything wrong with her big-city life could be cured by a small-town romance. Of course she hasn’t found love in superficial, fast-paced New York City. What she needs is a down-home everyman who will offer her steadiness and commitment—something she craves both personally and professionally.

In a last-ditch effort to kick-start her freelance journalism career, Adina pitches a story about Pleasant Hollow, a nearby small town about to be forever changed by the addition of a huge housing tower. She anticipates being welcomed to Pleasant Hollow by a grandmotherly bed-and-breakfast owner, befriended by a spunky waitress and charmed by a small-town Romeo, all of whom will confirm that the interlopers are ruining the character of their adorable town. Instead, the B&B owner is curt, the waitress is impatient, the town is bleak and no one cares about the development or Adina . . . except for the tower’s project manager, Finn Adams. Despite being absolutely gorgeous, city boy Finn’s lack of interest in a picture-perfect HEA is a red flag for Adina.

Nevertheless, Adina remains plucky to the max and continues trying to fit everyone else into the parts she wants them to play. The relentlessness of her search for quaintness and charm is admirable, if at times exhausting, while her struggle to find a simple, straightforward romance in a way-too-complicated world is relatable. Schorr provides an interesting foil for Adina in Finn, who encourages and frustrates her in equal measure as he helps her realize that love doesn’t have to be neat and tidy to be right and real.

★ Nora Goes Off Script

Nora Hamilton, of Annabel Monaghan’s Nora Goes Off Script, lives on the other side of a romance fixation—not as the addict but as the dealer, churning out scripts of sweet, interchangeable stories for the Romance Channel. But when her spoiled wastrel of a husband leaves her and their two kids, and she realizes she’s secretly, guiltily glad to see him go, she ends up pouring her own story into a new screenplay.

That screenplay gets turned into a serious Hollywood movie, starring Hollywood’s most gorgeous star, Leo Vance, who comes to Nora’s house to film on location and then . . . doesn’t leave. Leo has looks, talent, fame, fortune and a smolder that could melt glass. But after a recent personal loss, he’s floundering to figure out who he is, and Nora’s historic home in a low-key small town seems like the right place to find his footing. Will love ensue? Romance readers know it will, but their mutual feelings manage to catch both Nora and Leo totally off guard.

The plot—big-city hotshot finding his real self with help from a small-town sweetheart—may be a classic formula, but not a single thing in Nora Goes Off Script comes across as predictable. The characters seem to genuinely discover their story as it unfolds, always digging for something authentic and rejecting stereotypes (at least, the ones that Monaghan doesn’t gently lampoon before employing). Nora and Leo’s struggles are honest and poignant, Nora’s children are genuine and nuanced characters who are never treacly or smarter than the adults, and the romance takes its time while taking its main couple seriously. Warm, witty and wise, Nora Goes Off Script tells the truth about all of love’s ups and downs: family love, friendship love, romantic love that comes to a wrenching end—and love that triumphs so beautifully, you’ll still be smiling over it long after you’ve put the book down.

Are you a sucker for a made-for-TV movie? Then you'll love As Seen on TV and Nora Goes Off Script.
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New York Times bestselling author Emily Henry (Beach Read, People We Meet on Vacation) returns with Book Lovers, in which an ambitious literary agent’s summer trip takes an unexpected turn when she’s stuck in a small town with her professional nemesis.

Nora Stephens is known for her cutthroat drive and the dogged devotion to her clients and their manuscripts. There’s really only one person who can get through her tough exterior, and that’s her younger sister, Libby. When Libby proposes a sisters’ trip to the small town of Sunshine Falls, North Carolina, Nora acquiesces. Once there, Nora is surprised to run into book editor Charlie Lastra, a man she’s deeply disliked ever since he ruthlessly turned down one of her books. Apparently, Charlie is a Sunshine Falls native, and he seems different than Nora remembers from their encounters in New York City. He’s not the abrupt editor that spurned her before; he’s actually charming, which Nora finds particularly infuriating.

Henry excels at writing introspective, heroine-focused romance, and she uses the character of Nora to dismantle the stereotypical “career woman” archetype: the cold, ambitious person who sacrifices relationships for the sake of her job and often stands in the way of a more conventionally “feminine” woman’s happiness. But in Book Lovers, Nora doesn’t have to change her driven nature to find a partner who appreciates her. While Charlie is a real softie at heart, he still celebrates Nora’s desire to excel. He understands her professional ambitions, because he harbors similar ones himself.

Emily Henry wants justice for the “Big City Woman.”

And while Sunshine Falls’ small-town charm does eventually win Nora over, the most significant result of her letting her guard down is not so much her relationship with Charlie so much as it’s the reaffirmation of her love for her sister. Nora deeply cares for Libby, and as the trip goes on, Nora begins to sense that something is amiss. Their sisterly affection is a sweet delight to witness, an unconditional and supportive love that Henry celebrates just as much as Nora’s romance with Charlie.

Is it possible for Henry to write a romance that doesn’t glitter with pithy banter or that isn’t filled with characters you want to root for? So far, the answer is no. As the title suggests, readers who love meta “books about books” will delight in the details of Nora’s and Charlie’s occupations and their passion for reading. But Book Lovers is also a wonderful examination of work-life balance, the intricacies of family relationships and the realization that you shouldn’t have to compromise yourself for love.

A delightful romance that both dismantles and celebrates the “career woman” archetype, Book Lovers cements Emily Henry's status as one of the best rom-com writers around.
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You know that part in a wedding ceremony when the officiant asks if there are any objections? In The Wedding Crasher, that’s when the fun—and the chaos—begins. While assisting her wedding-planner cousin Lina, Solange Perreira witnesses the bride in a moment of passion with a man who clearly isn’t the groom. Despite some natural trepidation, Solange feels compelled to stop this marital train wreck.

Dean Chapman, the jilted and romance-skeptical groom, is less heartbroken by his wedding going down in flames than he is worried about his professional prospects. He works at a conservative law firm that thinks only family men are partner material. To save face, he says that Solange ruined his wedding because they’re in love. Conveniently for him, Solange is willing to play along. A temporary boyfriend would come in handy to impress her visiting family, who won’t be satisfied with her single status regardless of her meaningful and innovative career in education.

The follow-up to Sosa’s breakout rom-com The Worst Best Man, The Wedding Crasher is a winner—thoroughly delightful, modern and fun. The romance naturally flows from the close proximity that’s part and parcel of a fake relationship. And while the scenario is fun, Sosa’s novel is also thoughtful and emotionally resonant, in large part due to its two distinctive main characters and their sparky chemistry. Dean and Solange aren’t looking for true love, and both are battling other people’s restrictive ideas of what a successful life looks like. And most importantly, they’re heavily influenced by their childhoods, both spent with single moms.

When Dean was a child, his mother moved them around from place to place, chasing love and finding bad men and disappointing relationships time and again. Those formative experiences led him to conclude that love is dangerous and destabilizing. He wants a stable home, marriage and a family yet avoids romance, preferring relationships that are structured like business arrangements.

Solange, on the other hand, grew up surrounded by the love of her supportive Brazilian American family. But she’s terrified of making an important life or career choice and having it turn out to be the wrong one, and equally terrified of staying or working in one place for years like her mother did. In contrast to Dean’s story, the origins of Solange’s angst aren’t quite as clear. Why does she think that her mother has made such an enormous mistake? While the emotions come through loud and clear, the reasoning behind them is frustratingly fuzzy.

Ultimately, however, this doesn’t preclude The Wedding Crasher from delivering what readers want most in a romantic comedy. It’s laugh-out-loud funny, tartly sweet and scorching hot—a delicate balance that only a writer of Sosa’s considerable talent can strike.

The follow-up to Mia Sosa’s breakout rom-com The Worst Best Man, The Wedding Crasher is a winner—thoroughly delightful, modern and fun.
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In The League of Gentlewomen Witches, India Holton returns to the Dangerous Damsels, her magical romp of a series complete with flying houses, adventuring pirates and tenacious witches. In this fast-paced enemies-to-lovers romance, a witch destined to take over a secret society teams up with a roguish pirate captain to recover a stolen amulet.

Charlotte Pettifer is a descendent of the famed Beryl Black, founder of the Wicken League, which fosters the talents of both young and experienced witches. It’s Charlotte’s birthright to lead the league, just like her ancestor, and she’s always thought that her destiny was also her dream job. But a treasure-hunting pirate makes her reconsider her future. When Beryl Black’s long-lost amulet resurfaces, Captain Alex O’Riley sets out to claim it—and so does Charlotte, by stowing away on Alex’s flying house.

India Holton reveals which fictional sorceresses she’d want in her own coven.

Close quarters turn Charlotte and Alex’s rapid-fire banter into a sort of foreplay, but despite their mutual antagonism, their romance skews more toward the sweet and heartwarming end of the spectrum. The dashing, daring Alex provides the perfect foil for buttoned-up and duty-bound Charlotte. It’s not exactly a grumpy-meets-sunshine pairing—more like a stuffy character falling for a free-spirited one. Alex oozes charm; he already made a grand first impression in Holton’s debut, The Wisteria Society for Lady Scoundrels, and he will further secure his spot in readers’ hearts here. They will immediately understand why Charlotte is envious of Alex’s freedom, especially as the weight of becoming the head of the Wicken League looms over her. His very existence and infectious spontaneity make Charlotte waver on her commitment to the league. Can she really live the life she wants while also fully committing to the role of leader?

Holton takes readers on a wild ride through a fun, limitless world, where frivolity and whimsy reign supreme and skilled swordwork and grand displays of magic abound. It’s all a hodgepodge of delightful silliness, with over-the-top action, exaggerated villainy and the fact that it’s possible to fall in love with your sworn enemy while recovering an ancient amulet. Think Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride with a dash of Austen-esque comedy of manners. And then crank that all up to 11.

It’s impossible to know where the series will go next, but after finishing The League of Gentlewomen Witches, readers will be completely on board for more of Holton’s imaginative, rollicking romances.

Mel Brooks meets The Princess Bride, with a dash of Austen-esque comedy of manners, in India Holton’s imaginative, rollicking romance.
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★ Delilah Green Doesn’t Care

Children’s and young adult author Ashley Herring Blake makes her adult debut with Delilah Green Doesn’t Care, a queer small-town romance between—let’s be frank—two total babes who are most certainly worthy of their swoony whirlwind of a love story.

Delilah Green has no desire to return home to Bright Falls, Oregon; the tiny town is full of painful memories of a childhood spent feeling abandoned and isolated by her stepfamily. But when her estranged stepsister, Astrid, offers Delilah a large paycheck to photograph her wedding, Delilah finds herself back in Bright Falls for the first time in years. She hopes to get the trip over as soon as possible, but then she reunites with Claire Sutherland, a single mom who runs the local bookstore. Delilah recalls Claire being one of Astrid’s pretentious, “mean girl” friends, but she’s matured into a warm, kind and all-too-alluring woman. 

This tender story of growth and change is about becoming a person your younger self can be proud of. Delilah and Claire’s connection starts as a sexy sort of antagonism, an attraction they just can’t get out from under their skin, but it soon blossoms into a wild vulnerability neither expected. Blake’s impressive talent is on display on every page, especially when it comes to tracking the evolution of her central couple’s relationship. Romance readers are sure to welcome her (and Delilah) with open arms. 

Love at First Spite

An interior designer and an architect work together to build the perfect revenge in Anna E. Collins’ Love at First Spite.

Dani Porter’s already gotten mad about her cheating fiancé. Now, she wants to get even. When a vacant lot opens up next to her ex’s house, the place where they were supposed to live happily ever after, she quickly snatches it up. Her plan? Build an Airbnb right next door to block his beautiful view. To help with the project, she hires Wyatt Montego, a grumpy architect who works at her design firm. Their personalities immediately clash, but they soon find their groove within the large-scale project, moving from strangers to friends to something more. 

Given how much time and emotion she invested in her last relationship, only to then have her trust completely shattered, Dani is wary of love. And Wyatt is hiding his own sensitivities beneath his terse, stuffy exterior. The renovation and design elements provide the story’s foundation, giving Dani and Wyatt’s slow-burning chemistry plenty of opportunities to sizzle. This is a sweet story of healing after heartbreak, finding your person and debating the wrong and right ways to eat a sandwich.

If You Love Something

Some romances aren’t about finding something new, but rebuilding and reclaiming something you’ve lost. DeShawn and Malik Franklin haven’t seen each other in years and, as far as they know, they’ve been divorced for just as long. 

DeShawn is a successful executive chef in the Washington, D.C., area, but his comfortable lifestyle gets shaken up by one phone call from his dear grandmother. She reveals that she has cancer, she won’t be seeking treatment and she’s finalizing her will and plans to leave half of her estate to Malik, with whom she is still very close. But, there was a mix-up with DeShawn and Malik’s divorce paperwork: They’re still married.

When DeShawn’s uncle contests the will, DeShawn agrees to pretend that he and Malik are back together, hoping the ruse plus the fact that they are still technically married will make it easier for Malik to fight for his rightful share. But once they reunite, old problems and even older attractions emerge. 

Fans who love a bit of family drama in their romances, as well as some fake dating (between spouses!), will tear through Jayce Ellis’ endearing If You Love Something. DeShawn and Malik are clearly the right person for each other—they just met at the wrong time. Ellis shows how both men have worked on themselves and grown in order to become better romantic partners. If You Love Something will give you all the warm and fuzzy feelings.

Perfecting the rom-com is no easy feat. But these authors have cracked the code. Their satisfying romances boast heaping doses of lightness and humor, as well as some perfectly deployed and fan-friendly genre tropes.

With her latest contemporary romance, K.M. Jackson will win the hearts of any reader who loves Keanu Reeves (especially if they’re a Gen-Xer).

Bethany Lu Carlisle is a 40-something artist on the brink of a breakout—and a Keanu Reeves superfan. Her Keanu fixation is how Lu copes with life’s stresses: There’s a Keanu role out there to suit any mood, ready to provide a cathartic pick-me-up. So when news of the star’s forthcoming wedding hits the tabloids, Lu hits the road with the lofty goal of confessing her love to him.

Riding shotgun on her cross-country dash is BFF Truman “True” Erickson, a great guy and even better friend. A college economics professor, True recently wrote a popular book and is making the rounds on local talk shows, but his friendship with Lu keeps him humble and grounded. He’s loved Lu for years, but since he started out as her brother’s bestie, his affection has gone unnoticed. She’s his Keanu.  

Lu and True have the familiarity and intimacy of lifelong friends, but true to the friends-to-lovers trope, their communication stinks. They may have decades of life experience and disappointments behind them, but they are still their own worst enemies until they give in to the inevitable spark. Their journey is quirky and full of misadventures, while being poignant and heartfelt and full of emotion. 

How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days is charming even when it’s working through heavier emotional issues like grief and healing. Jackson brings a light-hearted and personal touch to the smallest of details, from the chapter titles echoing the names of Reeves’ movies to the pointed moments when True uses Lu’s full name to get her attention.

Is Keanu Reeves the perfect boyfriend? Answers may vary, but Jackson has definitely written an extremely enjoyable friends-to-lovers rom-com. How to Marry Keanu Reeves in 90 Days is a fun story with humor and heart, and a supremely satisfying conclusion.

Is Keanu Reeves the perfect boyfriend? Answers may vary, but Jackson has definitely written an extremely enjoyable friends-to-lovers rom-com.

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These 33 rom-coms from authors like Mia Sosa, Emily Henry & Meg Cabot will make you swoon and laugh—guaranteed.
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July 2022

6 thrilling international mysteries

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When something seems too good to be true, it probably is. In her U.S. debut, Miss Aldridge Regrets, British author Louise Hare illustrates that idea with deliciously suspenseful, Agatha Christie-esque results. 

The year is 1936, the place is Soho, London, and the star of the show is 26-year-old Lena Aldridge. She has a regular gig at the Canary Club, owned by sleazy criminal Tommy Scarsdale. When she’s not singing, she goes on dates with her married lover and tries not to think about how much she misses her late father, Alfie.

Every day, Lena wonders: Will her big break ever come? The future’s looking bleak, but then a stranger named Charles Bacon appears with an astonishing proposal. His employer, an old friend of Alfie’s, is offering Lena a role in his Broadway play, and he’ll pay for first-class passage to New York City aboard RMS Queen Mary. Lena is thrilled and trepidatious, but then her boyfriend dumps her. And then Tommy’s murdered. After deciding that fate is urging her to exit stage right, Lena sets sail. 

Readers will be enchanted by the period charm of Hare’s ocean liner setting and will swoon as Lena gets to know Will, a Black musician. Will notices right away that Lena is also Black, even though she’s been successfully passing as white for years. Lena knows that being Black will be even more of an issue in America than it was in England, a big change she’s not sure she’s ready for.

She’s also not ready for what happens on the Queen Mary: Someone murders one of the Abernathys, a wealthy family that Charles insisted Lena spend time schmoozing. As the ship glides across the Atlantic, its posh sheen gradually dulls in the wake of destructive secrets and even more murders. Everyone’s a suspect, and the red herrings pile up as an alarmed Lena thinks, “I felt as though I were trapped inside my own detective novel.” Readers will enjoy playing sleuth, racing to figure out who did it, how and why, even as they ponder the ultimate question: Will Lena survive the trip to New York unscathed?

Miss Aldridge Regrets' 1930s ocean liner setting will enchant mystery readers even as author Louise Hare seeds disquiet and red herrings amid all the glam.

Daniel Nieh’s Take No Names is a blast from start to finish, a classic crime thriller that shifts into an over-the-top action romp.

Chinese American Victor Li is keeping a low profile in Seattle after being wrongfully accused of killing his father, who secretly worked for a Chinese criminal syndicate (the plot of Nieh’s 2019 debut, Beijing Payback). Drinking buddy Mark Knox recruits Victor to his security tech business for Victor’s computer skills and ability to speak Chinese and Spanish. But it’s not long before Mark enlists Victor in a lucrative side job: breaking into a government storage yard to steal and then sell unclaimed items seized from deported immigrants. It’s on one of these ventures they discover a painite, a rare gem worth a cool $250,000. The pair smuggle the gem to a buyer south of the border, where they are soon embroiled in a scheme by a U.S. military contractor to derail construction of a new Chinese-built airport in Mexico City.

Along the way, the two men form uneasy alliances with Victor’s estranged sister, Jules, and Sun Jianshui, who once worked for the same criminal syndicate as Victor’s father—and was the person who actually killed him. The interactions among all four main characters lead to both humorous and emotionally charged moments as they try to worm their way out of the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. Victor and Mark are particularly likable, a pair of outcasts who have forged a unique and unexpected friendship.

Nieh, who has lived in the United States, China and Mexico, maintains a steady balance of humor, action and thrills, while also making some barbed commentary on American capitalism and Chinese globalization. The twists and turns come often, keeping the intrepid Victor and Mark on their toes as they run for their lives from one chapter to the next. What starts as a Joe R. Lansdale-esque crime thriller morphs halfway into an espionage caper à la Mission Impossible. If it sounds a bit over the top, it is—but that’s what makes Take No Names such an irrepressibly fun read.

Daniel Nieh's Take No Names is a blast from start to finish, a classic crime thriller that shifts into an over-the-top action romp.

What better to read on a hot summer day than a chilling thriller set in, well, Iceland? In Outside, Reykjavik native and internationally bestselling author Ragnar Jónasson turns the snowy “fjord-indented coastline [and] reindeer-haunted wilderness” of the Nordic island’s eastern highlands into an antagonist just as dangerous to the book’s central characters as the murderer (or perhaps murderers?) in their midst.

At first, there’s no thought of life-threatening peril when four college friends reunite for a woodsy weekend hike to hunt ptarmigan and catch up on one another’s lives. There’s Daniel, an aspiring actor who lives in London; Gunnlaugur, an argumentative lawyer; Helena, an inscrutable engineer; and Ormann, a wealthy tour company owner and leader of their trip.

An unexpected blizzard catches the quartet off guard, its fierce winds and zero visibility sending them into survival mode. Ormann knows of a hut they can hole up in until the worst of the weather passes—but just getting there is onerous as the snow piles higher, the air gets colder and the mostly amateur hikers’ nerves become frayed.

Once they get to the cabin, things get even scarier as frustration transforms into fear and life-or-death decisions are made more difficult by years-old resentments boiling up to the surface. Their paranoia grows in the cabin’s suffocatingly small space as Helena thinks to herself, “Guns, isolation, fear, and uncertainty—they were such an explosive cocktail.”

Jónasson inspires fast page turns via quick cuts among the four characters as they reflect on the past (so many secrets!) and frantically strategize about the present. Mini cliffhangers keep the story humming along; the author doesn’t shy away from ending chapters with lines like, “He had never been so afraid in his life.”

Spare prose and brisk pacing make for an immersive read that’s less about the individual characters and more about what they become when they’re forced together, no longer able to dissemble or hide. Will they work together to save themselves before it’s too late? Can they? Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.

Outside is an intriguing study of isolation, claustrophobia and the particular menace to be found in beautiful yet unforgiving terrain.
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The Drowning Sea is an atmospheric procedural starring a detective at a crossroads in her life.

Retired Long Island homicide detective Maggie D’arcy is spending the summer in West Cork, Ireland, with her Irish boyfriend, his son and her teenage daughter. They vacation in the picturesque village of Ross Head, but the idyllic trip is cut short when human remains wash up on the shore near their cottage. The body is that of Polish immigrant Lukas Adamik, whose disappearance months earlier led many in Ross Head to assume that he had returned to Poland. But when the police determine that the body was only recently deceased and rule out an accident or suicide, the mystery of where Lukas has been—and what happened to him—consumes the small community.

In addition to that, Maggie’s hostess, Lissa Crawford, asks her to look into the disappearance of her childhood governess, Dorothea. The Crawfords were once the owners of the local manor, Rosscliffe House, which Lissa sold after her family was beset by unfortunate circumstances. Chief among them was her father’s tragic suicide on the cliffs, after which Dorothea vanished. As Maggie investigates what happened to Dorothea, she realizes her case may be linked to the murder of Lukas.

The previous two Maggie d’Arcy mysteries have been set in both Ireland and Long Island, but The Drowning Sea completely immerses readers in Ross Head. Author Sarah Stewart Taylor creates a rich and slightly gothic atmosphere, with the ocean beating against the treacherous, wind-swept cliffs as Rosscliffe House looms over it all. Despite this subtle shift in tone, The Drowning Sea continues the series’ exploration of the inner life of its main character: Maggie becomes increasingly obsessed with the case, her dogged detective work serving as a distraction from the reasons for her retirement and the question of whether to uproot her and her daughter’s lives by permanently moving to Ireland.

The Drowning Sea‘s gorgeous backdrop and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.

The Drowning Sea's gorgeous setting and stalwart sleuth will satisfy and impress mystery readers, particularly fans of traditional whodunits.
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In Julie Mayhew’s Greek island-set thriller, Little Nothings, little cuts do lasting damage and friendships are as intense and heartbreaking as romantic relationships.

Thanks to her friendless childhood and dysfunctional family, Liv Travers never felt like she belonged. Even getting married to her husband, Pete, and giving birth to a daughter, Ivy, didn’t fundamentally change how she felt. But bonding with Beth and Binnie at a singalong music class for mothers and babies radically shifted her perspective.

So when an interloper comes along and rocks their happy triad, it’s intolerable. The new girl, Ange, is shinier and bossier than Liv’s other friends. Soon she has them all in her thrall, and the vibe shifts from supportive and homey to acquisitive and competitive, like a suburban London version of “Keeping Up with the Kardishians.” Regular group outings now take place at fashionable restaurants with bills totalling hundreds of pounds a pop. Every part of the group’s lifestyle gets an upgrade, and everyone is expected to conform. It’s hard to keep up financially, and even worse, Ange seems to want to run Liv off. Liv is excluded from group events with flimsy excuses, and no one else notices the manipulation. All the “little nothings,” the cuts and insults delivered so casually, add up, and the hostilities increase during an expensive group vacation to the Greek island Corfu. How far will Liv go to protect her found family, and what will she risk?

Rather than follow a chronological timeline, Mayhew uses flashbacks to reveal what pushed Liv and her friends to the brink. It’s an effective, psychologically driven structure, with each flashback being triggered thematically by an event in the present. As the full picture emerges, it’s easy to wonder if any friendship is worth all that drama, especially as neither Beth nor Binnie really seems to have Liv’s back. But to Liv, these women aren’t just friends, they’re soulmates; Mayhew even likens the intimacy of these female friendships to marriage. In a way that’s reminiscent of both Nikki May’s thriller Wahala and the novels of Patricia Highsmith, the intense relationships are vital to the women’s sense of their own identities. Vowing to not be that lonely girl again, Liv in particular hangs on with the fervor of a person in a rocky marriage warding off divorce.

Anchored by a deliciously layered and desperately unreliable narrator, Little Nothings enriches the familiar setup of an intruder shaking up a happy idyll with a compelling, creative structure and distinctive voice. It’s obvious that what Liv needs are better friends and a truckload of therapy, but singular obsessions make for seductive and fun reading, even if the depth of Liv’s interiority makes the other characters look thin and shabby by comparison. A good choice for fans of relationship-driven stories with a sinister edge, Little Nothings hits the same sweet spot as the works of Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

With her Greek-island set thriller, Little Nothings, Julie Mayhew hits the same seductive sweet spot as writers like Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty.

Nothing ever happens in Ebbing—until one horrific weekend. Local Gone Missing follows a variety of residents in the tiny English seaside town, from an inquisitive cleaning lady with a dark past to vacationers with a secret agenda. It all comes to a head during a chaotic musical festival, one that ends with dual overdoses, a possible murder and a host of spilled secrets. Hopping back and forth before and after the incidents, New York Times bestselling author Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit.

For Dee Eastwood, a cleaning woman and wife of a recovering addict, it’s business as usual until one of her clients, the demanding Pauline, asks if Dee has seen Pauline’s husband, Charlie. The retired, formerly wealthy couple are living in a trailer until they have the money to fix up their crumbling estate, and Charlie has been struggling to pay the residential facility fees for his adult daughter, Birdie, who incurred a brain injury after a home invasion decades ago. Meanwhile, Detective Elise King, newly in remission from breast cancer, recalls seeing Charlie pre-disappearance at Ebbing’s first music festival—right before two young people overdosed on drugs of unknown origin. Are the two events related? When Elise finds Charlie’s decomposing body, even more questions arise.

Though Local Gone Missing‘s plot is wonderfully twisty with a surprising and satisfying conclusion, it’s the characters who stand out. Ebbing’s weekenders have their own complex motivations—especially a mild-mannered gay caterer and a middle-age father who are mysteriously connected to each other, and maybe to Charlie as well—but it’s the locals who will really draw readers in. Foremost among them is the compelling and well-drawn Elise, who’s struggling to adjust to life back on the force after returning from medical leave. Her retired librarian neighbor Ronnie, who’s eager to play amateur sleuth and surprisingly adept at sussing out clues, provides much-needed comic relief in this intense story of greed gone terribly wrong. Thanks to Barton’s airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, a minibreak by the sea will never seem relaxing again.

Using airtight plotting and impeccable characterization, Fiona Barton spins a tangled web of dirty money, bloodshed and deceit in Local Gone Missing.

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