Actors Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke and January LaVoy highlight John Grisham's wry humor and emotion in these three legal-thriller novellas.
Actors Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke and January LaVoy highlight John Grisham's wry humor and emotion in these three legal-thriller novellas.

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For his many fans, a new book from John Grisham is always a reason to celebrate, but audiobook listeners are in for a treat thanks to the excellent voice talents of Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke and January LaVoy.

Sparring Partners (10 hours) comprises three legal-thriller novellas, including “Homecoming,” a new story starring Grisham's beloved hero Jake Brigance. Daniels (known for his roles in Dumb & Dumber, “American Rust,” “The Newsroom” and more) brings Jake and his supporting cast of characters to vibrant life. His playful Southern drawl is particularly fun when voicing Jake's sometime legal partner and rival Harry Rex. 

Actor and novelist Hawke brings a more youthful vibe to Cody Wallace, the narrator of “Strawberry Moon,” with a performance marked by deadpan humor and emotional angst. In his final hours on death row for murder, Cody is both incredulous of and moved by the series of visitors to his cell. Award-winning audio narrator LaVoy capably voices the titular tale about feuding brothers who inherited a law firm from their father, who's on the verge of a pardon from his prison sentence.

All three narrators highlight Grisham's storytelling trademark: fascinating characters facing unusual circumstances with wry humor and real emotion.

Actors Jeff Daniels, Ethan Hawke and January LaVoy highlight John Grisham's wry humor and emotion in these three legal-thriller novellas.

A Killing in Costumes, Zac Bissonnette's first Hollywood Treasures mystery, deftly balances a tightly plotted mystery with glamorous characters and a unique setting in the world of movie memorabilia.

Decades ago, Cindy Cooper and Jay Allan were bona fide celebrities. The married-in-real-life performers starred as a couple in a popular soap opera to great acclaim—until they decided to reveal their true sexual orientations to the world. Jay and Cindy lost their acting careers and ended their marriage but remained close friends. 

They now own Hooray for Hollywood, a movie memorabilia store in Palm Springs, California. Business is slow, and they're in danger of having to close the shop for good until they're offered a chance to represent retired silver screen legend Yana Tosh in the sale of her personal collection of film costumes and memorabilia. When a vice president of the auction house competing for Yana's collection is found dead, Jay and Cindy become suspects in the investigation. To clear their names, keep their business afloat and win Yana's collection, the friends must work together to solve the case—before the killer strikes again.

Bissonnette does an exceptional job constructing A Killing in Costume‘s central whodunit: Each entertaining suspect has believable motives and opportunities, and mystery fans are sure to appreciate his deftly hidden clues. But the heart of the story lies in Cindy and Jay's close friendship, which has weathered the collapse of their careers, new jobs and relationships, and every success and loss along the way. Both are deeply funny people who are fiercely protective of each other, and their passion for and knowledge of the film industry will delight readers who are also movie buffs. Finally, Cindy's struggle to find a new normal after the loss of her beloved wife to cancer provides a serious note that is both touching and authentic.

A Killing in Costumes has all the hallmarks of a great cozy: a unique setting, an intriguing cast of characters and an exciting mystery.

A Killing in Costumes has all the hallmarks of a great cozy: a unique setting, an intriguing cast of characters and an exciting mystery.

When you’re a spy, regime change is tricky. Even positive shifts can make for treacherous times. Two novels uncover the messy, uncertain lives of intelligence operatives in times of tectonic political change: Allison Montclair’s The Unkept Woman explores English life after World War II, at the dawn of the Cold War, while Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work illuminates the turmoil surrounding German reunification as the Cold War was coming to a shaky close. 

The Unkept Woman

A lighter riff on the espionage novel, Montclair’s The Unkept Woman is the fourth in a series about two women—Gwendolyn Bainbridge, an upper-class widow, and Iris Sparks, a former British spy—who run the Right Sort Marriage Bureau, a matchmaking service launched in the wake of WWII. 

Witty and suspenseful, the novel brims with Noël Coward-esque banter. The primary mystery is how Helen Joblanska, an aspiring Right Sort client, ended up dead in Iris’ apartment. And why was a woman tailing Iris in the days before the murder? The events may or may not have something to do with the sudden reappearance and subsequent disappearance of Andrew Sutton, Iris’ married former lover and fellow spy, who had recently turned up on her doorstep looking for a place to hide out. 

As the prime suspect in Helen’s murder, Iris is determined to find the truth, but she’s facing strong tail winds. The local authorities are openly hostile due to their resentment of her involvement in previous cases, and Gwen is unable to help Iris as her own freedom and future are hanging in the balance. She has been trying to recover custody of her son and her inheritance, but having once been labeled a “lunatic” and committed to an asylum by her family, it’s an uphill battle.

Montclair paints a compelling portrait of two intelligent, formidable women working against systems and circumstances that put them at a distinct disadvantage. They’ve grown used to having careers and being in charge of their own fates, often in the absence of men. But both Iris and Gwen are considered disreputable, and the social change they represent is seen by some to be a monstrous encroachment on the normal social order. As unruly women in an uncertain time, Iris and Gwen are as intriguing as the mystery they’re investigating.

Winter Work

Like The Unkept Woman, Dan Fesperman’s Winter Work savvily leverages the inherent messiness of the life of a spy. When Lothar Fischer, a colonel in the now-defunct East German foreign intelligence service (more commonly known as the Stasi), is found dead in the woods near his dacha, his right-hand man, Emil Grimm, is determined to find out what really happened. Some suspect suicide, as many other senior Stasi officials have made that choice in the face of potential prosecution now that the Berlin Wall has fallen, but Emil thinks that’s nonsense. To complicate matters, the surrounding neighborhood is thick with former spies, and there’s soon a scuffle over jurisdiction. 

As a sympathetic Stasi officer, Emil provides a fascinating perspective for Western readers. In addition to the troubles of being an aging Cold Warrior, Emil also worries about his wife, who is seriously ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease. With the Stasi dismantled amid the general upheaval, Emil’s income and health care are uncertain, which makes his situation particularly precarious.

As Emil scrambles to make sense of what happened to Lothar while trying to secure his future, Fesperman effectively balances building the mystery with illustrating the broader historical context and personal stakes. The social dynamics in the story are handled brilliantly, with the lines between personal and political motivations appropriately nuanced throughout. There are a multitude of competing interests in Berlin, chiefly Russians trying to shut down the flow of information and Americans offering top dollar to informants. For Emil, who has long since lost his belief in the East German system and grown wary of surveillance in his own life, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is a shaky figure who can’t be relied upon to help displaced men like him in this new world order. With the Russian leader “too preoccupied with making the Americans fall in love with his new Perestroika,” some of Emil’s fellow officials are looking for hope in other figures. In a chillingly prophetic note, one of them is Vladimir Putin: “The KGB station chief in Dresden, that Putin fellow, is as outraged as we are,” they remark. The heavy toll of authoritarianism looms over the entire proceeding, making for a complex tale that will have readers rooting for a Stasi agent.

Regime change, murder—and matchmaking? In two thrilling novels, spies both former and current contend with a host of challenges.

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.

In The Half-Life of Valery K, the titular Soviet scientist is released from a Siberian prison and transported to a town called City 40, which seems to be absolutely suffused with unhealthy levels of radiation. The most frightening thing? As Natasha Pulley reveals, towns like City 40 really did exist.

In the 1960s, across the Soviet Union, there were cities without real names. Instead, they had numbers that corresponded to P.O. boxes in towns miles away: Semipalatinsk 21, Chelyabinsk 40. Sometimes, even more ominously, they had code names like the Installation, the Terminal and the Lake. These cities did not appear on maps, the people who lived there couldn't leave—many couldn't even contact relatives on the outside—and they absolutely could not discuss what went on there.

These places were atomgrads: secret cities that hid the Soviet nuclear program.

It sounds like the plot of a Bond novel, but this system was actually an answer to the biggest problem the Soviet Union ever faced: how to keep the Americans from doing to Moscow what had been done to Hiroshima. The Soviet Union had a formidable nuclear arsenal, but the atomgrads made it so that very few people knew where all the parts were, how they fit together—or what the consequences would be if someone tried a hot war instead of a cold one.

 “The truth is so bizarre that it doesn’t sound like it can be right . . .”

I didn't know about any of this until recently; I just stumbled over it. When the TV show “Chernobyl” came out a couple of years ago, I loved it so much I read Serhii Plokhy's brilliant Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe for background. In it, he mentioned something that nearly knocked me off my chair. One of the reasons the scientists at Chernobyl had some idea about what to do when the plant's nuclear reactor melted down was that this had happened before, at a place called Ozersk. Plokhy didn't say anything else about it in his book, so I started looking into it.

Ozersk is a code name, derived from the Russian word ozero, which just means “lake.” Its other name is Chelyabinsk 40, meaning City 40. It was—and still is—part of that network of secret atomgrads. In the '60s, City 40's speciality was producing weapons-grade plutonium.

Late in 1957, something happened in City 40. We still don't know exactly what. But we do know that thousands of kilometers of land around City 40 were irradiated. We also know that hundreds of people in a city 90 kilometers away were admitted to the hospital with radiation sickness. If people that far away were that sick, the amount of radiation released must have been enormous.

But unlike Chernobyl, hardly anyone in the West has heard of City 40, even today. In fact, when Soviet scientist Zhores Medvedev broke the news of it to the Western press in the 1970s, nobody believed him. A lot of Western scientists outright rubbished what he said. Nobody could accept that there had been a major nuclear disaster that stayed secret. But it did.

After I read Medvedev's book about the disaster, and saw the declassified CIA documents he attached to it, I started writing. I started learning Russian and looking at archive footage and poking through the website for Rosatom, Russia's current nuclear agency, which has plenty of information about City 40. I did a course on nuclear physics so I could actually understand the documents I was finding. The picture that emerged was so strange it could have been from a comic book, and I think that's partly how it stayed secret. The truth is so bizarre that it doesn't sound like it can be right: hundreds of thousands of people exposed to radiation and radioactive land that remains dangerous today; widespread health problems even now because of it; and at the heart of it, a facility called Mayak—the Lighthouse—that actually produced the polonium that killed Alexander Litvinenko, a prominent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in 2006.

All this led to The Half Life of Valery K, which is about a scientist sent to work at City 40 in 1963, and what happens when he starts staring too hard at its secrets.

Photo of Natasha Pulley © Jamie Drew.

In the 1960s, the Soviet Union covered up a Chernobyl-level nuclear disaster. Natasha Pulley's new thriller, The Half-Life of Valery K, reveals the truth.

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.

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The atmosphere, attitude and ambiance in Emma Flint’s debut thriller, Little Deaths, tunes right into the era in which it’s set—that of 1965 New York. It’s a time full of female stereotypes, where law enforcement, juries, the press and the general public frequently pre-judge women on appearances, eager to denounce those who deviate from mom-and-apple-pie images of Norman Rockwell fantasies.

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