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Winter Reads: Family Thrillers

Ellen Cushing | January 14, 2014 | Story Reviews

Ripper, by Isabel Allende
One-sentence summary: When a string of murders grips San Francisco and her mother disappears, an enterprising high school senior sets out on her own investigation.
Family dynamics: (Long-divorced) taciturn cop dad and freewheeling mom, dependable grandpa.
Thrill factor: The first scene involves a brutal murder and a roomful of elementary school students, and it only gets more intense from there.
Literary cred: This may be a thriller—the author’s first—but it’s still Allende: finely wrought, gorgeously written, and expertly plotted.

Mercy Snow, by Tiffany Baker
One-sentence summary: After her brother is implicated in a mysterious school bus accident in an insular New Hampshire paper town, 15-year-old Mercy tries to figure out what happened—and unearths another family’s secrets in the process.
Family dynamics: Lower-class orphans versus aloof paper titans.
Thrill factor: Slow burning at first, but the last half of the book, in which a series of never-saw-that-coming secrets are revealed, reads like lightning.
Literary cred: Baker is brilliant at creating utterly believable worlds for her characters. Titan Hills inhabitants feel like people you might know—except slightly more sinister.

Motherland, by Maria Hummel
One-sentence summary: In Third Reich Germany, Liesl, the young second wife of a Mitla╠łufer— someone who feigns Nazi sympathy to evade persecution—struggles in the face of her husband’s military draft and her stepson Ani’s mysterious disease.
Family dynamics: Quietly grieving dad, not so quietly grieving kids, new mother trying to hold it all together.
Thrill factor: The source of Ani’s ailment is confounding, and the lurking tension around whether he’ll be sent to a sanitarium carries surprising stakes.
Literary cred: Hummel has a gift with inner monologue—important in a book steeped in internalized shame and repressed anger.

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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