I'd meant to post an individual review for each of the Whitney suspense finalists and then, well, life (in the form of the end of the semester) caught up with me.
So here they are enmasse.
My favorite of the suspense novels was Josi Kilpack's Rocky Road.
I'll admit. When I read my first Sadie Hoffmiller mystery, I wasn't that impressed. But I've read several more over the last couple of years and one of the things I admire most is Kilpack's ability to grow her character. Sadie changes over the course of the series, learning new abilities, maturing as a sleuth, and even wrestling inner demons. In this book, contrary to her eagerness to investigate early mysteries, Sadie is only reluctantly drawn into an investigation. She'd hoped to spend her weekend in Southern Utah with her friend Caro and Caro's cousin Tess, enjoying manicures and food and prepping for an upcoming cancer run/walk. But when the founder of the cancer run disappears, and Caro and Tess confront her with details about Dr. Hendrick's disappearance that don't match up, Sadie is compelled to ask a few questions of her own. What I loved most, in addition to Sadie, was the local color. This book is set within an hour of my home and I've been to nearly all the places she describes and I loved seeing my world through Sadie's eyes.
But I will say that all of them were engaging and had their strengths.
My Segullah friends had mixed feelings about Heather Moore's Finding Sheba, which mixes historical accounts of the Queen of Sheba with modern-day archeological digs searching for evidence that the queen existed. The novel was ambitious and because of that it's hard to keep track of characters early on. But I enjoyed it. I thought the politics surrounding the digs were fascinating and believable. I didn't connect as well to the Queen of Sheba, who made some oddly quixotic decisions (which resulted later in confusing and contradictory archeological evidence--which made her choices seem less the result of a consistent character than a reason to intensify the mystery). But on the whole, I enjoyed it, and the fast pace kept me reading into the night to finish.
Tracy Abramson, Deep Cover
Abramson worked for the CIA before becoming a writer, and some of her familiarity with that world shows through in this novel, an interesting look at the conflicts faced by a woman of faith who has to lie to the world as part of her job. At 28, Kelsey Webber is living in the Middle East deep in a cover identity as a governess in a terrorist extremist's compound. But after getting shot, she's pulled out and sent home to Virginia to recuperate--but it isn't long before her past catches up with her and she's asked to share her skills and knowledge to try and hunt down local terrorist cells.
Living in her parents' empty home (they are away from home on a church service mission), Kelsey meets and begins to fall for their friend and neighbor, Noah Cabot--who not so coincidentally works for the FBI. Both of them are in the business of keeping secrets, and even as a new threat forces them to work together, the secrets they share (and the ones they keep to themselves) might be the undoing of their fledgling relationship. While I didn't love this book, I found it interesting, particularly the ways Kelsey tries to navigate living her faith but also living in deep cover. It was also interesting to watch her navigate her family's feelings (most of whom thought her non-appearance at major holidays stemmed from selfishness, not the fact that she was risking her life for her government). For me, the suspense plot was actually of secondary interest compared to the personal storyline.
Jordan McCullom, I, Spy and Spy for a Spy
The first two books in McCullom's Spy Another Day series were both Whitney finalists. In the first, readers are introduced to Talia Reynolds, a CIA operative working in the unlikeliest of spots: Ottawa, Canada. The tensions in this book operate on two levels: on one level, Talia has just gotten herself in over her head posing as an attractive (if lonely) Russian woman to try and get information from a Russian businessman in town for a few days. On the other, Talia's day job is posing increasing complications for her personal life, namely, her boyfriend Danny, who knows nothing about Talia's real work. I enjoyed the book--I thought it was a fun, quick read, and Talia's quirky voice was amusing.
In Spy for a Spy, Talia and Danny are now engaged and Danny knows (mostly) about Talia's dual life. But when Talia's long-time boss is moved to another division and her new boss shows up, she realizes she's in for more trouble. Her new boss is her ex-boyfriend, and one with an axe to grind. He tells Talia he has reason to believe that her former boss might be a traitor, and while Talia is reluctant to believe him, she knows she has to investigate. But the more she searches, the more she uncovers, and the more dangerous things become for her. I didn't enjoy this one as much as the previous one--while Talia's voice is still fun and fresh, I struggled to understand why she was keeping so much from Danny (she doesn't tell him that her new boss is her ex) and why she didn't enlist help earlier in her spying. Of course, secrets are at the heart of any spy story, but not all of the secrets hung together for me here.