Tag Archives: thriller

The Road to Hell …

CBR_Logo2Pretty Baby
A Novel
by Mary Kubica

Pretty Baby, the second novel from Chicagoan and bestselling author Mary Kubica, centers on a few days in life of the Wood family, whose Matriarch, Heidi, has invited an enigmatic homeless girl, Willow, infant child in tow, into their Lakeview home. What begins as an act of goodwill on Heidi’s part slowly morphs into something much more sinister. Willow’s and Heidi’s tragic pasts are slowly revealed through a mixture of flashbacks and a police interrogation, uncovering a complicated web of ulterior motives and dark secrets.

The fascinating disparity between the family’s surface and subconscious intentions is perhaps Kubica’s biggest achievement with Pretty Baby. Heidi, for example, in practically her every action is simultaneously unreasonably selfless and insufferably selfish. She spends her life helping others, never taking a day off from her work at a non-profit, going above and beyond to help those much less fortunate than herself, much to the chagrin of pretty baby kubicaher husband and daughter, too often pushed to the periphery of Heidi’s life in favor of whichever unfortunate soul seems to be occupying her attentions at that moment. Indeed, it is in Heidi’s selflessness that her selfishness resides; her constant need to help others is often, whether she realizes it or not, unmistakably self-serving. Particularly when it comes to inviting Willow into her family’s home, completely disregarding how her family may feel, not because it’s the right thing to do, but, as it turns out, because it gives her a chance to raise that second child she always dreamed of, but due to personal tragedy (read: cancer), was never able to make a reality.

Kubica does a fantastic job of developing Heidi’s relationship with Chris into one that has depth in its complications and conflicts, and is much more than the simple “opposites attract”-type couple they appear to be on the surface. While Heidi, the goodwill martyr, works for a non-profit, Chris is an investment banker, a job at which he spends the majority of his waking hours. He is adamantly opposed to his wife’s unshakable philanthropy in inviting a stranger into their home. Yet, in a familial sense, it is Chris who devotes his life to others. He is unhappy with the job he does because it keeps his wife and daughter in the comfortable life they have become accustomed to. For example, Heidi makes outlandish demands for items such as a $1,000 gold chain from which to hang her father’s wedding ring, and Chris laments that the money could have gone toward a family vacation. He also worries for his wife’s and daughter’s safety when Heidi seems to have lost the ability to do so, to the point where he demands they all sleep together in the same bed. And, even in his moments of unfaithfulness, the long-suffering Chris still remains devoted to his wife.

In their respective designated chapters, Kubica reveals with expert pacing the tensions of their marriage that slowly ferment below the surface, setting up a gripping interplay between Chris’s lusting after a coworker and Heidi’s heartbreaking jealousy and mistrust rooted in the loss of her child, a loss which she never got over, a loss through which Chris lost his wife to unending sorrow.

However, somewhat to its detriment, this conflict between Heidi and Chris makes up a teasingly small part of the story, which, as it gains momentum, concentrates more on the tragic circumstances of both Heidi’s and Willow’s pasts, as the seemingly endless depths of their despair are revealed. The extent of the horror and sadness Kubica’s characters endure becomes overwhelming by the novel’s end; particularly as it seems an attempt to absolve Heidi and Willow of their wrongdoings, nullifying any complexities in their actions. By the end of the novel, Willow, at just sixteen, has experienced a life about as horror-filled and harrowing as any other character in literature, while Heidi has suffered a family death from which she never recovered, cervical cancer, a life-saving abortion, and a hysterectomy.

Mary Kubica, author "The Good Girl"

Author Mary Kubica

These woes anesthetize the characters against any questioning of their actions. Of course these characters would snap, of course they would lose the ability to make sound judgments on the morality and repercussions of their behavior, of course they’re going to do something completely beyond the realms of reason and sanity; it would be strange if they didn’t. Surely, these characters would have much more depth of complexity were they not struggling under a ton of tragedy, were all their actions not simply explainable with a wave of the hand: “They’ve had hard lives.”

Undeniably, the novel is remarkable in places, and aside from the prose, which is, in places, lackluster at best, with confusing metaphors littering its pages (early in the novel, an El train is described as slowing “its way into the loop, careening around twists and turns”), it can be said Pretty Baby is a gripping literary thriller. However, Kubica spends too much effort on keeping the reader turning the pages, as opposed to giving them something to remember; it becomes too melodramatic, the characters are pushed too far beyond the realms of reason, and the most memorable aspects of the novel—the everyday struggles in response to those tragedies—are left by the wayside.

Two-Star Review

July 2015, MIRA
$24.95, hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-1770-8

—Reviewed by William Wright

Learn more about the author and her novels.


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A Time-Traveling Exploration of Spiritual Alternatives

CBR_Logo2Scroll Back: Travel in Time …
to Seek Eternal Life
A Novel
Jay Stamatis and Steven P. Stamatis

Billed as a thriller with Scriptural overtones and written by the father-and-son team of Illinoisans Steven and Jay Stamatis, the premise of Scroll Back is an intriguing one: a novel exploring honestly and without irony what most would call a conspiracy theory. Although the book could easily veer into kitsch, the sincerity with which it is written keeps it from being tacky.

The novel, which tackles “the relentless search for God,” delves into questions regarding the role of the individual in determining how history gets recorded and in what manner it is preserved. The historical dialogue in this novel is vast in scope—foci range from the Dead Sea Scrolls to the Bermuda Triangle. The plot moves through space—from the United States to Mexico to Belgium—and, most importantly, through time. Scroll Back’s time-traveling characters move between the present, the late twentieth century, and all the way back to the time of John the Baptist. Throughout these leaps scroll back FC9781503121270through time and space, the reader witnesses people governed by their own time and theories—religious or otherwise—preserving and discarding facts of their present. The effect this has is revealed when the novel is in what serves as its present day: History is contrived by those with power.

What the reader learns is that history is selective, and one is prompted to continue along this line of investigation: How does the selectivity of history affect the present and people looking back? The protagonists of the novel—Peter Mandes and Alex Mostovolov—provide a lens through which these historical questions can be explored.

Despite the avenue they create for the compelling lines of thought presented in the novel, however, the characters in this novel come across as tools rather than their own agents. They serve primarily as mouthpieces airing what seem to be unfounded opinions from an outside party. The characters are functionally effective, but are kept from being truly interesting due to their lack of development or personality. Motivations are clear in that they are explicitly stated rather than being illustrated through action or dialogue, but this does not keep the characters from coming off as mere shadows rather than real people. The lack of attention to character exploration is further underscored by unrealistic dialogue and unexplained mental leaps contrived to advance the plot.

The plot of Scroll Back is highly intentional and tightly structured. This is both a strength and a weakness: Although the novel is confident in how it wants to proceed, its rigidity keeps it from being believable, puts too many constraints upon characters, and makes the presentation of information awkward. For this reason, the novel often reads as a series of information dumps strung together with hard-to-follow lines of logic. Luckily, although the plot is hard to follow, it is redeemed slightly in that its focus and thematic scope are interesting.

Stylistically, outside of instances of compelling word choice, the writing itself is vague and non-descriptive. Its clumsiness and ambiguity, alongside issues of characterization, prove to cloud what was a premise with great potential. As a result, Scroll Back has a thought-provoking foundation, but it struggles to clearly or realistically articulate what it has set out prove.

One-Star Review

January 2015, GK Publishing
$17.95, paperback, 314 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1503121270

—Reviewed by Cassandra Verhaegen

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Meandering Through Shadows

CBR_Logo2Shadows the Sizes of Cities:
A Novel

by Gregory W. Beaubien

A dark thriller with a pace-pumping secret, Shadows the Sizes of Cities is a book that feels its way around the world as if searching by touch, sound, and smell in the dark. Author Gregory W. Beaubien delivers this debut novel about a young American travel writer exploring North Africa and beyond with a small group of friends.

Will Clark narrates this story, which has him traveling with friends through such places as Chicago, Amsterdam, Morocco, and Spain. The novel explores elements of class divisions, alienation, and relationships while Will looks for ways to make himself feel whole again. Gangs, drugs, and murder quickly become part of the picture, and it soon becomes shadows citiesobvious that Will is not revealing the whole truth about his purpose abroad.

Beaubien follows his roots as a reporter and travel writer for The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and Travel and Leisure. His novel displays a skill for journalism, building scenes with sensory details that allow the reader to taste the roasted lamb kabobs and smell the rotten meat hanging above a dirt floor. What the novel is lacking in developed relationships, it nearly makes up for with an intense pace that is at times excruciatingly slow and heart-pumpingly fast. Live-action fight and chase scenes explode with vivid details and a sparse, spot-on narration. This pace propels the plot forward, despite the plot-holes along the way.

It is when the novel slows and attempts to build characters that the plot thins, and when those characters are easily discarded, the plot seems nearly transparent. Instead of amplifying the mystery, the disappearing characters seem to create plot holes, as if those shadows of individuals were forgotten. Conversations end mid-sentence and then—poof!—the character is never spoken of again. A near-constant reference to a ghost-like man called only “the Dutchman” and a blonde mystery woman build a suspense that, unfortunately, is never fully realized. Although the woman gets her time in the limelight, a much needed confrontation with the spectral Dutchman is avoided and—poof!—the plot moves on.

In the end, Will Clark travels far and wide, showing the reader an accurately detailed glimpse of exotic places, dots on a map that become fully realized homes and towns and people. But Will stops at the edge of the Algerian desert, and his character travels no further than the first page emotionally.

With an ending that is at best unsatisfactory and at worst confusing, this novel struggles to reach its full potential. Beaubien knows his business, and that is engaging reporting. As for the developed characters and plot required of a full-length novel, it is as if an expert on sensory detail is feeling his way around in the dark throughout Shadows the Sizes of Cities.

Two-Star Review

June 2014, Moresby Press
$14.95 paperback, 240 pages
ISBN: 978-0-9911816-0-5

—Reviewed by Mindy Jones

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