Thrills for a Thriller Writer: Gina Wohlsdorf's Top 10 List

Seira Wilson on August 06, 2018
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BloodHighwy200.jpgWe loved Gina Wohlsdorf's debut novel, Security, and now she's given us something a little different but no less gripping in her new book, Blood Highway. Where Security was a dark combination of mystery and horror, Blood Highway screams hard-boiled thriller in a deadly girl-on-the-run story. Rainy Cain is only seventeen and already fending for herself in a crazy family situation. Then her dad Sam (who she thought was dead) turns up, an escaped convict looking for the hidden cash that he went to prison for stealing, and things get a whole lot worse. There's a murderous road trip, and high-wire terror in this one, making it a tough story to stop reading once you've taken the plunge into Rainy's world.

Wohlsdorf is a big fan of thrillers that take you for a heart-pounding ride, and below is her list of Top 10 favorites in reverse order.  As I read each entry I found myself thinking, oh, yes, that one! And that one! There are a couple I haven't read before, but now I'm definitely picking them up--and adding Blood Highway to my own list of favorites...


A thriller’s job is to thrill, but I think that’s every book’s job — to take you away from the humdrum of daily existence, into an experience that blows your mind wide open. And summer is the time of year when it somehow feels extra-important to unplug, to immerse yourself in a novel that makes you wish you didn’t have to leave it in order to do those pesky tasks called life: going to work, walking the dog, cooking dinner, peeing. Whether the book casts its spell with a deadly game of wits, a subterranean spaceship, cowboys, canoes, or the riotously funny yet heartbreakingly serious intrigues of suburban moms, it matters not. What matters is that you surface from the thrills thinking how you have to make all your friends read this, just so you can talk about it together and relive the roller-coaster ride. Here are my top ten thrillers. Before you start any of them, pee first. --Gina Wohlsdorf


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Number 10: The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

Based on actual events, this novel opens on British diplomat Justin Quayle finding out his wife, Tessa, has been savagely murdered. Using his international connections and considerable intelligence, Justin embarks on a one-man mission to find out what happened. He uncovers a conspiracy involving medical testing, Big Pharma, and bureaucratic cover-ups that stretch higher and wider than he’d ever imagined. Written with flawless clarity and eerily perfect pacing, it’s not only a pulse-pounding thriller but a beautiful meditation on love, loss, and grief.


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Number 9: Deliverance by James Dickey

Forget what you think you know about this story: four men head into hill country to canoe a wild river; they play some banjo music and run afoul (and I mean afoul) of the locals. Dickey made his name as a poet, and you can feel it in the rhythm of sentences, in the word choices he makes. If that doesn’t float your boat (heh), the narrator’s evolution surely will. From city office stiff to white-knuckle survivalist, Ed Gentry’s metamorphosis doesn’t miss a beat. But your heart will.


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Number 8: Angel of Darkness by Caleb Carr

A sequel to The Alienist, and for my money the better book. Stevie Taggert tells of an adventure he once had as the carriage driver of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a pioneer in the field of criminal psychology. Their case is a tense who-dun-it involving an infant abduction, but the matter is further complicated by turn-of-the-twentieth-century political unrest and gang violence. The majority of the action is set in 1897 New York. You’ll swear, for the amount of detail and texture Carr weaves in, that he did his research by time traveling.


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Number 7: Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

We’ve all had that day where so many things go so insanely wrong that all we can do is laugh. Atkinson plays on that duality here, quite skillfully. Three unconnected cold case crimes (an axe murder, a brutal stabbing, and a little girl’s disappearance) are being investigated by British private investigator Jackson Brodie. Though it’s tempting to salute Atkinson for her deft comic timing alone, the psychological intricacies she reveals with every voice she uses (and there are many) make this book a triumph of craft. I devoured it in a day.


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Number 6: To the Last Man: A Story of the Pleasant Valley War by Zane Grey

The Isbels and the Jorths are in a bloody feud that seems to have no end in sight. That is until Jean Isbel meets Ellen Jorth and lust-sparks fly. Think Romeo and Juliet meets Bonanza. Actually, just don’t think about it; read it instead. There are standoffs, shoot-outs, forbidden love, and an ending that, I’m not kidding, made me cry. You’ll see why Zane Grey had the career he did. His descriptions of vistas and his ear for old school dialogue were without peer.


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Number 5: In the Woods by Tana French

Any of French’s books could have been on this list. She has such a knack with language and pacing and character that calling it a knack is kind of an insult. But I’m giving the edge to her debut because it’s the one I read first, and it was the gutsiest thing I’d come across in a long time. Irish murder detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox investigate the senseless death of a 12-year-old ballerina. And once they make sense of it, you’ll almost wish they hadn’t. Almost.


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Number 4: Savages by Don Winslow

Two pot dealers scheme to get their mutual girlfriend back when she’s kidnapped by a Mexican cartel. The star of the show here is the language: stuttery, start-and-stop action spliced with casual surfer-speak. The trippiest part is this: Winslow is very capable of writing a traditionally gorgeous sentence. He does it all of twice in this novel, and the effect is like finding a diamond in a lot of wonderful rough. Surprisingly emotional, lovingly executed, difficult to put down.


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Number 3: Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

If this isn’t a thriller, then I don’t know what is. Three moms juggle work, friends, family, and the incredibly catty politics of elementary school parenting. Hovering over all of this is a murder that really put a damper on the school’s trivia night, although the details of that evening are dangled tantalizingly in front of us by way of an ingenious Greek chorus. The brilliance of this device made me furious with jealousy; I wish I’d thought of it. I started this book at 2 in the afternoon and barely moved until I finished at 11:30 that night. A real bladder-buster.


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Number 2: The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

An overlooked gem in King’s oeuvre, about a quiet lady writer in a tiny Maine town who stumbles on something in the woods and decides to dig it up. The relentless build of this plot is textbook King, as is the evil underbelly of Haven, Maine, which is not so much the result of, but is rather exacerbated by, that pesky lady in the woods who’s slowly revealing a secret that could be the end of them all. But as ever, it’s the bonds between characters that bind us to the story. This book is an ode to friendship that will take your breath away.


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Number 1: Battle Royale by Koushun Takami

Though I enjoyed The Hunger Games, Takami did it first and he did it better. Japan, some dystopian tomorrow: a bus full of fifteen-year-olds is headed for a class trip when they’re diverted to an island and told to kill each other. The dumbfoundment of this book is its forty-plus characters, and Takami characterizes them all. Their actions, choices, alliances and agonies create a mosaic of perspectives that comes this close to total POV overload, yet it’s the universal experiences of being fifteen — making friends who feel like your lifeline, having crushes that seem like forever, trying to survive to adulthood with no real assurance it will be any kind of victory — that always makes me ask anyone who’s read it: Which character are you in Battle Royale? (FYI: I’m Takako Chigusa.)


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