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Two reviews: 'The Dead Student' and 'The Night Sister'

Correspondent
Reviews: 'The Dead Student' and 'The Night Sister' authors to speak at Miami Book Fair

'The Dead Student' By John Katzenbach. Grove/Atlantic, 432 pages, $26

Sobriety can be a hard-won battle, victories coming one day at a time. And that war can be lost so quickly, as John Katzenbach deftly explores in his 14th thriller.

Miami Ph.D. student Timothy "Moth" Warner knows too well the battles with the bottle. He credits his psychiatrist Uncle Ed with helping him come to terms with his alcoholism and get help at AA meetings.

 

But Moth's world changes on his 99th day of sobriety when he finds his uncle's body in the man's Coral Gables office. The police rule Ed's death a suicide, and Moth crawls back into the bottle, even missing the funeral. When he sobers up, Moth refuses to believe the suicide verdict. Ed, who also was an alcoholic, stressed the joys of life and dealing with problems.

Moth finds several inconsistencies when he takes a closer look at Ed's office and background. With the help of ex-girlfriend Andy Candy and doubting district attorney Susan Terry, Moth's investigation leads him to an enigmatic killer who calls himself Student #5 and has spent decades make his revenge murders untraceable.

Former Miamian Katzenbach ratchets up his trademark intensity in "The Dead Student," a breathless plot with plenty of twists that are grounded in reality. Although he now lives in Massachusetts, Katzenbach's insider's view of South Florida remains strong, beginning with his 1982 debut "In the Heat of the Summer," which was filmed as "The Mean Season." "The Dead Student" smoothly moves from the neighborhoods of Miami-Dade County to Key West with a stop in Massachusetts.

Katzenbach also delivers a realistic view of sobriety and those in recovery. Moth's AA meetings attract several professionals because of its location and Moth's testimonials evolve into a discussion about his investigation, showing how an individual can get strength from a group dynamic.

A clever plot and well-sculpted characters elevate "The Dead Student."

Secrets thread through modern ghost story

'The Night Sister' By Jennifer McMahon. Doubleday, 336 pages, $25.95

The ghost story gets a reboot in the intriguing — and often chilling — "The Night Sister." In each of her seven novels, Jennifer McMahon increasingly has mingled her brand of tense suspense with the paranormal for plots so realistic that the supernatural element is easily embraced.

"The Night Sister" offers plenty of frights, an isolated building and even a basement that no one should go into alone — but, of course they will. At its heart, the novel is an emotional tale of two sets of sisters and a friend, all separated by decades, but bound by love and secrets.

"The Night Sister" opens with a horrific crime. Amy Slater, her husband and son are murdered in the Tower Motel on the outskirts of London, Vt. Amy's young daughter, Lou, survived by hiding during the killings. A replica of the Tower of London, the Tower Motel was built by Amy's grandfather as a tribute to his British wife. The only clue found is an old photograph of Amy's mother and aunt with the words "29 Rooms" written on the back. Amy's childhood friends, sisters Margot and Piper, know what the cryptic note means.

"The Night Sister" seamlessly moves through three different time periods. McMahon shows the present; the 1950s when Amy's mother, Rose, and her aunt, Sylvia, were growing up in the Tower Motel; and the 1980s when Amy, Margot and Piper were growing up and uncovered secrets about Amy's family that led to the friends' estrangement.

The decades-old unsolved disappearance of a teenager who wanted to go to Hollywood to star in Alfred Hitchcock movies, a family legend and willful teenagers provide a gripping plot to "The Night Sister."

McMahon's "The Night Sister" will have readers afraid to look under the bed, or go into that darkened room.

Oline H. Cogdill can be reached at olinecog@aol.com.

Meet the authors

Jennifer McMahon and John Katzenbach will be among the authors at the Miami International Book Fair Nov. 15 to 22 at the Miami Dade College Wolfson Campus, 300 NE Second Ave., Miami. For more information, visit miamibookfair.com.

John Katzenbach is scheduled to participate "Crime and Consequence: A Reading" at 2 p.m. Nov. 21.

McMahon is scheduled to participate in the panel "New Novels: Dark and Supernatural" at 1:30 p.m. Nov. 22.

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