Readers looking for a great escape from the everyday routine during their vacation will find it in five of the most offbeat thrillers to hit bookshelves this summer. Whether it’s an alternate history in which slavery never ended or a television reality show turned survivor tale, these books will keep readers turning the pages on the plane or on the beach.
MORE THAN A GAME
In her debut novel, The Last One, Alexandra Oliva delivers a pulse-pounding psychological tale of survival. The book starts innocently enough as the 12 contestants on a television reality show are pitted against each other in a game of endurance. The story follows the group through a series of physical challenges and tests of fortitude, with the winners advancing to compete on another night and the losers sent packing. But when a mysterious illness begins taking its toll, things take a dramatic turn. The competitors are all but cut off from the real world and even lose contact with their TV hosts and camera people, leaving them to fend for themselves. At first blush, main protagonist Zoo believes it’s all part of the game, but the deeper she treks into an increasingly apocalyptic landscape, the more desperate and real her situation becomes. The question she must inevitably ask is, how far is she willing to go before her emotional, physical and mental capacity give in to the truth? Oliva masterfully manipulates her characters and the setting, creating a mash-up of popular TV genres: “Survivor” meets “The Walking Dead.”
Wendy Walker continues the theme of psychological suspense with her latest novel, All Is Not Forgotten. The thriller, which has already been optioned by Reese Witherspoon for an upcoming Warner Bros. movie, poses a question: What if you could take a drug that would make you forget about a traumatic experience? The experimental drug is perfectly suited to military members suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but what if it’s given to someone who is the victim of a violent rape? That’s exactly what happens to teenager Jenny Kramer. But while the drug is able to erase the experience of her rape from Jenny’s memory, the physical and emotional scars remain. Helping Jenny come to grips with the trauma is Dr. Alan Forrester, a psychiatrist who acts as the narrator of this harrowing story. But as Forrester delves deeper into the events of that awful night, and the search for the perpetrator intensifies, Forrester’s own life is rocked by the possibility that his son may have committed the foul deed. The twists and turns of the story all lead up to a read you will not soon forget.
With a timely novel focusing on race and equality, Ben H. Winters turns the issue of slavery on its head in Underground Airlines. In this astonishing alternate history, slavery in America did not end at the climax of the Civil War, but instead has continued to the present day in four states in the Deep South. What’s more, Winters’ main character, Victor, is a free black man whose job is to return escaped slaves to their rightful owners. Like the famed Underground Railroad, slaves vying for freedom make their way across state lines via the Underground Airlines, a system of package trucks, over-the-road haulers and stolen tractor-trailers. Victor’s mission is to infiltrate the system, discover the whereabouts of each escapee and report them to his bosses, who in turn swoop in to apprehend the runaway slave. Of course, things aren’t always what they seem, and Victor’s bizarre allegiance to his employer comes into question when one of his cases turns out to be an insider working to upend the slave empire from within. With Victor’s routine shattered, he’s forced to question everything and determine what it is he stands for, regardless of the consequences. Winters handles the controversial topic with sensitivity, yet isn’t afraid to ask some bold questions along the way.
ONLY THE LONELY
Iain Reid’s debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, is a tightly crafted, taut thriller that readers can easily finish in a single sitting—perhaps on a lounge chair by the pool. The novel follows a pair of lovers as they embark on a long road trip to meet the parents of the boyfriend, Jake. Things start innocently enough as the narrator recounts how she met Jake, how she was drawn to him and him to her, despite their unremarkable features. But lurking behind everything, our narrator feels a sense of dread and malice altogether unexplainable. Part of it harkens back to a mysterious stranger she once saw looking in her window and to an anonymous caller’s unnerving phone messages. When Jake decides to take a detour, and our narrator is ultimately left abandoned at a deserted high school, the suspense and danger build. Reid’s straightforward voice firmly places the reader in the head of “the girlfriend” as she tries to cope with the psychological torment facing her in this dark and compelling novel.
HOW HE DIED
At first take, Everything I Don’t Remember by Jonas Hassen Khemiri may seem like a daunting read. The novel swiftly hops from one narrator to another, from one time frame to the next, as it follows a decidedly unconventional story structure. But once readers dive in and allow themselves to become fully immersed in the narratives, they’ll be in for one of the most engrossing novels of the summer. A winner of the August Prize, Sweden’s most prestigious literary honor, the novel recounts the tragic life of a man named Samuel through interviews and conversations with the people around him, all leading up to a fatal car crash. At the root of the novel, however, is a complex puzzle of whether Samuel’s death was the result of a tragic accident, a planned suicide or murder. Piecing together the answers is an unnamed narrator who must come to grips with his own interpretation of himself and those around him. Khemiri’s stylistic approach is sure to keep readers of Everything I Don’t Remember enthralled every step of the way.
This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
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