"Descent"

Riveting Debut Novel Focuses on Family Tragedy

Begin “Descent” and you’ll turn a deaf ear, and eye, to all duties and responsibility. This thriller by Tim Johnston is a super-charged, addictive read about a teen’s disappearance and its effect on her family — and on others drawn into the whirlpool. Page flip, but don’t expect instant answers as to how the characters’ lives will intersect.

Johnston is a master at juggling narratives, leisurely providing answers as pages accumulate. Be patient and you’ll be rewarded as he fits pieces of his plot-puzzle intricately into place in a book that focuses on how one instant can forever change our lives.

The allure of the Rocky Mountains provides a vacation backdrop for the Courtland family of four, off on a getaway before their daughter leaves for college. Her parents also are in hopes the trip will bridge the gap in their marriage. Grant Courtland has had an affair. His wife Angela knows about it, and she and Grant are trying to knit their relationship back together.

Their oldest, Caitlin, is a gifted runner, 18, full of anticipation about her future, and thrilled she’s received a track scholarship. Just after their arrival in Colorado, Caitlin goes out for a run in the mountains. She takes her 15-year-old brother Sean along with her.

Grant Courtland has reminded his children to be careful in the mountains, admonishing them to look out for one another. Caitlin has her cellphone along for an emergency, but it provides little protection when every parent’s nightmare becomes reality, leaving Sean injured and Caitlin gone, wafted away like a leaf on an aspen tree, stripping her family of peace and driving a stake into a marriage already weakened by indiscretion.

To reveal more of the plot would spoil this gripping book, certain to have Johnston added to a list of accomplished authors known for writing heart-pumping thrillers.

“Descent” can comfortably share shelf space with like books by Urban Waite, Wiley Cash, Ron Rash and Tom Franklin. Readers are sure to relish this fiction debut and lose a lot of sleep rushing to finish it.

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“The Magician’s Lie,” by Greer Macallister

Now you See Him—Now He’s Dead, Mystery Keeps You Guessing

Step right up and take a seat for “The Magician’s Lie,” by Greer Macallister, an easy read, historical fiction that’s instantly engaging. The main character is the Amazing Arden, an illusionist of great beauty who travels the country at the turn of the century performing for adoring audiences — drawing record crowds for a high-class show she runs that never fails to entertain and mystify.

The Amazing Arden is a woman ahead of her time, one who makes a name for herself far and wide because of her virtuoso stunt of sawing a man in half, this at a time when women didn’t even have the right to vote.

In reality Arden is actually Ada Bates, a woman with a tragic past that catches up with her when her husband’s dead body is found under the stage after one of her performances.

Knowing she will be suspect, Arden flees, straight into the path of Virgil Holt, the town policeman of Janesville, Iowa, who earlier had attended her show. Holt is an honest, but infirm officer who took a bullet in a recent crime. His life hangs in the balance because the bullet is still embedded in his flesh and any exertion might make it move, leading to death or paralysis.

In his vulnerable condition, Holt takes Arden into custody, securing her with multiple sets of handcuffs to a chair in his office, determined to get the truth out of her. Holt is sure Arden is guilty and busting this case wide open will be his ticket to job security. The novel takes place over one night as Arden tells Holt her story, from childhood to present.

While the means the author uses to reveal Arden’s tale seems a bit hard to swallow, the story of her personal torture at the hands of a madman, who fantasizes himself a healer, makes for a can’t-put-it-down reading experience.

Arden’s lie, too, will surprise, in a book that’s bound to keep you guessing right up to the end.

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"Girl on the Train," by Paula Hawkins

Intriguing New Novel Predicted to Be This Year’s “Gone Girl”

Sometimes you need a “guilty read,” fiction you know isn’t literary but definitely entertains. “The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins is a psychologically gripping debut that delivers.

Three women — Rachel, Anna and Megan — narrate the book, their stories alternately keeping you on the edge of your seat. Rachel Watson is a pathetic, lonely alcoholic who rides back and forth on a commuter train from her rented room in Oxfordshire to a pretend job in London. She lost her job because of her drinking, but continues the charade of being employed to fool her roommate, who is growing ever more impatient with her drinking.

Using alcohol as a balm for her problems has made a mess of Rachel’s life, contributed to her husband Tom leaving her for Anna. The couple lives in the home Rachel shared with Tom — a Victorian by the tracks that Rachel passes on her commute, torturing herself as she fixates on Tom, Anna and their new baby.

Rachel creates an imaginary life for another couple she sees who live four doors down from her former home, painting scenes in a brain ladled by alcohol and heartbreak. Rachel dreams up a perfect marriage for gorgeous Megan and Scott, a relationship that appears loving, but one that crumbles in her mind when she sees Megan in the arms of another man.

Megan used to own an art gallery but also served as a nanny for Anna and Tom’s baby, a stint that was short lived. Watchdog Rachel is aware of all this because of her vantage point on the train, where she lives vicariously through the people she sees.

When Megan mysteriously disappears, Rachel, who seems at times on the brink of madness, is determined to help find her. She does, after all, have information the authorities would find helpful, as would Scott, a husband awash with grief. As Rachel becomes more deeply obsessed with the crime, she takes risks that put her in danger, all the while her alcoholism spirals out of control.

“Girl on a Train” sucks you in, but the conclusion is implausible. The book’s strength is its portrait of Rachel, a complicated character readers won’t know whether to trust or not. If it’s pure escapism you seek, this mystery delivers.