Here comes Summer – and today’s post features three psychological thrillers that will keep you glued to your beach chair.  Who needs that walk anyhow?

618EYSu88HLNashville native Don Winston presents The Gristmill Playhouse: A Nightmare in Three Acts, and this novel has your name written all over it if you love musical theatre!  Or a cheerful thriller.  With a touch of horror.  Don Winston has spun a confection light as cotton candy – dripping blood.

Betty Rose, our heroine, dreams of bright lights in the big city.  A successful summer on stage at the Gristmill Playhouse is her ticket to Broadway – a pipeline, for sure, and almost a guarantee.  But she comes to believe that something may be dreadfully amiss at the Gristmill.  The charismatic director seems to hold the other actors and actresses under his sway, and Betty Rose begins to fear that she has been pulled into some kind of cult.  Why has her roommate Gwen disappeared?  Why can’t her friend Phyllis see what’s going on around them?  As secretive preparations for the final production continue, Betty Rose fears that blood may be spilled in a show no one will ever forget.  At the moment of truth, she must decide how far she is willing to go to realize her deepest desire.

3ea16f_2f7d9331af5046cf91c0731d86407a29.jpg_srz_p_262_392_75_22_0.50_1.20_0I mentioned to my friend Don that all his books seem to dwell on this question of desires and high stakes choices.  He smiled.  “Yes, all my books so far have protagonists who want something in life so badly they overlook the gathering clouds. Basically, they live in denial, such is their focus on getting what they want out of life.  Denial is the lynchpin of the paranoid thriller.  I think it’s also very common in life.  We all want our lives to go well, so we strive to overlook trouble, whatever it is.  Plus, in my stories, my characters reason that what seems to be happening can’t possibly be happening.  They are correct; it is worse.  And by the time they come to the realization that their house is really on fire, it’s almost too late to escape.

Now, all that sounds dark, so my stories are fables, in a way.  They are intentionally divorced enough from reality that the reader can keep a bit of distance.  In essence, they are like children’s stories for adults, almost like The Twilight Zone.  They are clearly make believe.  And yet I try to keep my characters on the knife’s edge of real and unreal, which creates a slight sensation of madness throughout.

Fortunately, I’m a sunny, upbeat person.  It’s just my stories that are a little twisted.  Why not?”  Now it’s my turn to smile.

You don’t have to love musical theatre to enjoy this book, though it doesn’t hurt to agree with the charismatic and possibly evil director of the theater:

A good musical cuts deep and twists the knife, with the euphoric highs and woeful lows of the most searing, gut-wrenching of dramas.  The very best musicals bleed as much as any Shakespearean tragedy.

I couldn’t agree more.  To whet your appetite for The Gristmill Playhouse, go to, which features the song Don and Kyle Rosen wrote for Betty Rose to sing in the final number.  The musical director of Beautiful put it all together and asked the divine Maddy Jarmon to record it.  The song means one thing before you’ve read the book and another thing entirely once you’ve finished.  Clever.

A quick shout-out to Steven Womack for the novel’s cover design, which captures the festive, eerie, twisted-Disney tone of the tale.

For my interview with Don about his novel The Union Club: A Subversive Thriller, click here.

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9k=-1There’s nothing festive about Marta Bjornstad’s tale in How to be a Good Wife, a darker psychological thriller by Emma Chapman.  

How to Be a Good Wife seems to be set somewhere in Scandinavia, based on the frequent mention of fjords, the cold weather, and those tricky names.  You first meet Marta at home.  She is waiting until 1:00 to go into town to do her marketing, her precise routine every day.  Her husband, Hector, comes home unexpectedly at 12:30, and Marta is unpleasantly surprised.  The main action of the book involves Marta’s preparation for a dinner party that night, but what happens inside Marta’s head is the real story.

Ever since her marriage, Marta has taken strong medication for an unnamed mental disorder.  She has recently stopped taking her pills without telling anyone.  As her mind becomes clearer (or muddier), she begins to remember things that may or may not be true about how she and Hector met and married.  That period of time has long been foggy to her.

Chapman builds suspense, dread, and doubt in stark and simple prose.  Is Marta recovering lost memories, or is she losing her mind?

Throughout the novel, Marta refers to a book her mother-in-law gave her as a wedding gift, “How to Be a Good Wife.”  It reminds me of guides we’ve all seen parodied and circulated, with advice such as:

Never question [your husband’s] authority, for he always does what is best for the family, and has your interests at heart.

After a hard day at work, your husband will want a hearty meal to replenish his spirits.

Let him talk first.  Remember that his topics of conversation are more important than yours.

Marta’s husband is unquestionably a strong and controlling force in her life, but the question raised by the book is whether Hector helped save a disturbed young woman – or created her.

“This chilly, efficient thriller is refreshingly difficult to classify,” writes Catherine Taylor in The Guardian.  “The unnamed Scandinavian setting has all the familiar elements of contemporary northern lights noir, yet its claustrophobic, interior-driven narrative harks back to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s disturbing feminist classic The Yellow Wallpaper, or even Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.”

You can probably tell if this is a novel that you’d enjoy – or if it would make you crazy.

I found it at Target in the “Target Club Picks,” several shelves of paperbacks on the opposite side of the bestsellers that are certainly worth a browse when you’re filling the big orange cart.

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51Loetvs5xLThe hot book of the moment about a woman losing her mind is Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum.  From the publisher:  “Anna Benz, an American in her late thirties, lives with her Swiss husband, Bruno – a banker – and their three young children in a postcard-perfect suburb of Zürich.  Though she leads a comfortable, well-appointed life, Anna is falling apart inside.  Adrift and increasingly unable to connect with the emotionally unavailable Bruno or even with her own thoughts and feelings, Anna tries to rouse herself with new experiences: German language classes, Jungian analysis, and a series of sexual affairs she enters with an ease that surprises even her.

But Anna can’t easily extract herself from these affairs. When she wants to end them, she finds it’s difficult.  Tensions escalate, and her lies start to spin out of control.  Having crossed a moral threshold, Anna will discover where a woman goes when there is no going back.”

Essbaum came to Nashville in April and gave a reading at the Skillery that I was sorry to miss.  I’ll refer you to this excellent post at Parnassus’ blog Musing for an interview with her.  The press for this book has been hot and heavy; that being said, I’m not sure it’s the book for me, as by most accounts the heroine is seriously hard to like or understand.  On the good side, it has a lot more sex than the other two.  Please comment and let the rest of us know what you think if you’ve read it!

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For more summer reading recommendations, please check out my recent post at or the June issue of NFocus, on stands soon.

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