Monthly Archives: May 2009

Lisa Unger’s “Die for You”: A Bone Zero Thriller

A shorter (750 word) version of this review appears in the Dec. 17- 23, 2009 issue of the Naples Florida Weekly.and in the Dec. 23-29 issue of Fort Myers Florida Weekly.  See: Florida Weekly – Lisa Unger

[Shaye Areheart Books imprint of Random House. $24.00. 352 pages.]

Lisa Unger is a novelist whose style and plotting are so fine, and whose explorations of the human psyche are so emotionally devastating, that reading her novels is an exquisite torture. She takes us places we don’t really want to go, even when protected by the supposed safety of a book’s covers. But once we’ve risked the first few chapters, there is no turning back. She has us needing to work our way through, with her characters, the most frightening, disorienting circumstances. So it is once again in her latest effort, Die for You, a brilliant evocation of the questioning mind: the person who cannot live without knowing the “why” behind the forces that are out to betray and destroy her, even if the search for answers only deepens the danger.  


For certain people, there is no living without knowing. Isabel Raine is one of those people. A successful novelist and seemingly happily-married young woman, she finds herself in a dangerous situation when her Czech-born husband doesn’t return from work one day and, soon after, his office is ransacked by people pretending to be FBI agents. Isabel, at his office to find clues to Marc’s disappearance, is herself seriously injured by the intruders. When she awakens in a hospital, she asks her sister Linda, “Why didn’t they kill me?”  As narrator, Isabel continues:

It wasn’t a lamentation; it was a question of pure curiosity. They should have killed me. I saw them all, could easily identify any of them and would likely be doing so shortly. Bu they hadn’t. Why not? To someone who constructed plot for a living, it seemed stupid, careless.

So it goes with Isabel Raine, asking the questions a novelist would ask with the audacity of the creative spirit rather than allowing herself to be a mere victim. She pushes against the professional investigators as often as she cooperates with them, and she takes independent action as if she were merely following out the dynamics of a work of fiction set in motion by her own imagination.

Detective Grady Crowe and his partner, Jesamyn Breslow, pursue the case with some suspicion of Isabel herself. Their professional skills and commitment, as well as their human foibles, are well-drawn by Unger, as is their frustration with Isabel’s behavior. Early on in the investigation, they provide Isabel with some shocking truths: the man to whom she has been married for five years had usurped the identity of another man – a Marcus Raine who was also an immigrant from the Czech Republic and who also worked in computer software – who disappeared in 1999. He, the new Marcus, had been living a lie. Isabel had been duped.

With these revelations, the premise shifts gears. It’s no longer “what happened to Marcus Raine?” but “how could Marcus have done this to Isabel” and “how could she have let this happen.” Thematically, Unger probes questions like “how well do we ever know another person” and “what is the root of personal identity.” It’s about nature and nurture, how relationships are built, how trust is won and lost, and how both knowledge and ignorance are dangerous things.

Now, seeming digressions into the backgrounds of Isabel and Linda, their choices in husbands, their contrasting responses to their father’s suicide and their mother’s remarriage, all become part of a much more intricate puzzle that goes beyond the mechanics of popular genre writing. While we can easily label Die for You as a psychological thriller, it is much more.

Like Isabel Raine, Lisa Unger is compelled to follow up on all questions about what makes people tick. She makes Isabel’s chase after the truth about her husband an inquiry into Isabel’s own psyche and behavior. She, Unger, complicates our understanding of the creative process, drawing parallels between the kind of character-invention a novelist undertakes and the kind of self-creation that we all undertake to one degree or another. It is even possible to say that Isabel believed in her husband because he was so well scripted and fit so well into the plot of her own life.

Now her life’s plot includes imminent danger. At one point in the novel Isabel’s long-time friend, constant admirer, and literary agent warns her: “This is not some novel you’re writing, Isabel . . . . This is your life.” When Isabel asks Jack “What’s the difference?” she is not just making a flip remark. Passages like this echo through Die for You, keeping us in touch with Unger’s powerful metaphor concerning life and art.

For all its provocative wisdom, Die for You commands the reader’s attention as a pulse-pounding march of incidents and information, often frightening, sometimes tender, always drawn sure-handedly and efficiently. Unger carefully orchestrates the revelation of information and the building of suspense by juxtaposing Isabel’s narration (the main thread) with scenes that glide through the thoughts of several other characters. Her delineation of subordinate characters – Isabel’s sister Linda, Linda’s husband Erik, their children Trevor and Emily, the detectives, a doorman, the haunted character Ben who eerily echoes the sisters’ father, and many others – is superb. Her renderings of several New York City neighborhoods and her evocations of Prague ring true.


Die for You extends the pattern of riveting excellence that has brought acclaim to Lisa Unger’s previous work: Beautiful Lies, Sliver of Truth, and Black Out. Keep in touch with her via her web site


For a review of Unger’s Black Out, see Lisa Unger

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Sign Upon Your Doorposts

 It is only the content of memory that vanishes,

Often the shape remains, embracing a vacuum,

Like the faint outline of a mezuzah

Long removed from the doorpost

Of a once-Jewish home.


So often we have saved the candlesticks

But not the candle-lighting,

The kiddush cup but neither the blessing nor the wine.

A grandfather’s tallis bag nests in a box of heirlooms,

The shawl within yearns to embrace lost shoulders,

Its fringes seek to lasso exiled fingers.


We have been guests at seders

At which the exodus from Egypt is an afterthought,

 “this night” not so very different, after all,

From all the other nights when freedom

Is recalled or sought, this story only worthy

As a prototype of all the others.


Like players in a puppet theater, we improvise

The story of a People without The People.

Like the mezuzah casing without the parchment,

The affixing without the blessing,

And then only the outline of the casing,

Soon drown beneath fresh paint.

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Karna Small Bodman’s “Final Finesse”

Since the review presented below was posted, a different version has appeared in the January-February 2010 number of the Fort Myers Magazine. See Ft.Myers magazine – Karna Small Bodman

 In her latest literary outing, Karna Small Bodman has taken a detour around the central characters of her first two political thrillers (Checkmate and Gambit) and given us compelling new personalities to follow in this captivating portrayal of all-too-plausible threats to our national security. When gas pipelines start exploding, Samantha Reid swings into action. As White House Deputy Director for Homeland Security, she senses the magnitude of the danger, but her opaque and self-absorbed superior is not ready to act. Indeed, no one seems ready to act. In Final Finesse, getting the bureaucracy to recognize and respond to a crisis is like wading in molasses.


Samantha finds an ally in Tripp Adams, vice president of GeoGlobal Oil & Gas, the company that owns the pipelines. She quickly figures out the technical side of what the saboteurs are up to and enlists Tripp in her investigation. Clearly enough, the explosions – as they mount – promote chaos in the fuel markets, sending prices out of sight. Communities and even large regions of the country are threatened by a severe, ongoing energy crisis that cripples all aspects of economic life.  Hospitals can’t function, heat is unavailable, people are suffering, and the country is ripe for panic. Among the possible beneficiaries are enemies of the United States, especially those with a significant stake in the world energy market. We are led to suspect the leader of a certain South American country who makes a policy of nationalizing enterprises that foreign investors like GeoGlobal spend fortunes to establish.

Tripp is assigned to go to Caracas and negotiate with “El Presidente” and his government. As he prepares for his trip, and as his professional dealings with Samantha turn personal, a white-hot romance develops. 

In Final Finesse, Bodman employs the sure-fire narrative technique of alternating perspectives. While Samantha is the controlling intelligence in one group of chapters, another group of chapters is focused on the gas field workers who have been hired and trained to sabotage the pipelines. Yet another group reveals the deliberations of El Presidente and his clever but conceited aide known “The Fixer.” The author brings one part of her story line to a suspenseful moment and then postpones pushing it forward by switching over to another part of her story line for a while, once again planting new and suspenseful questions. By orchestrating her narrative in this way, Bodman tightens her hold on her readers’ attention, revealing and withholding information with great dexterity.

The stakes are raised when Tripp is kidnapped and held for ransom in Venezuela. A frustrated and worried Samantha throws caution and government regulations to the wind, organizing her own rescue effort by getting GeoGlobal to hire a paramilitary crew from a company for which Tripp once worked.  From this point on, the plot line alternates primarily between Tripp and his kidnappers and the operatives whom Samantha has engaged – and whom she insists on accompanying into the danger zone. The team leader, Joe Campiello, is an attractive, well-drawn minor character.

Indeed, there is a fairly large cast of supporting players that give dimension and credibility to the world that Bodman constructs. These include Samantha’s boss, who tries to take credit for her work and can’t wait for his next appearance on cable news shows; a gang leader named Eyeshade; a friend of Samantha’s named Angela Marconi who also holds an important White House position; and Evan Ovich, another White House staffer whom I take as an irresistible, playful reference to a Bodman friend – a well-know novelist named Janet.

Final Finesse is a worthy addition to Karna Small Bodman’s growing collection of political thrillers. Authoritative, well-paced, and just plain fun to read, it also is a novel offering food for thought about the dangers that our country faces and intriguing insights into how well our government is prepared to deal with them.

credit Didi Cutler

credit Didi Cutler

While Bodman takes her readers to Oklahoma and other places where gas lines are threatened, to the White House and several other D. C. locations, and even to Venezuela – the brief reference to our dear Naples (Tripp’s parents have a winter place in Port Royal) is a bit of icing on the cake. Karna Small Bodman spends a good part of each year at home in Naples, where she is a great asset to the literary and cultural community. For biographical information on Bodman’s careers as a media professional and as a high-ranking government official, see her website

See also: Karna Bodman and Karna Bodman (2).

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