Got a long weekend stretching ahead of you? Try one of these popular page turners, each with a twist all its own. If you're a fan of literary fiction, The Lifeboat — a debut novel by 57-year-old Charlotte Rogan — will buoy you through a suspenseful afternoon. You may need two afternoons to polish off The Innocent, a muscular whodunit by perennial best seller David Baldacci. As for The Marriage Plot, well, settle into that comfy chair: Cerebral stylist Jeffrey Eugenides is about to rivet you in place for the weekend — but if you enjoy his novel as much as we did, you may not want it to end.
By Charlotte Rogan
Little, Brown and Company, April 2012, 288 pages
$24.99; ebook $11.99
Packed aboard an overloaded lifeboat with no savior in sight are 39 survivors of a shipwreck. Among them is our calculating narrator, Grace Winter, a young newlywed whose husband may have gone down with the ship. This quick read, set somewhere in the mid-Atlantic in 1914, manages to encompass a survival story, a courtroom drama and a morality tale: How relevant is the judgment of society, Rogan asks, when death is at hand and the ocean your only witness?
Grace tells her saga in the form of a diary written from her prison cell, where she awaits trial for "murder at sea." The first chapter is a flash-forward to this future fate, which makes for some gripping reading once Grace begins recounting how the lifeboat passengers coexist, or fail to, with every passing day (it's not pretty).
Rogan's portrayal of Grace Winter is as deft as her choice of that name. Grace's evaluations of her boat-mates' potential for treachery, for example, are skewed by her own powerful instinct for self-preservation. Rendered penniless by her father's suicide, she casually describes manipulating her wealthy fiancé to the altar. Yet where is the shame, Grace would surely ask, in trying to salvage one's own life? Whether or not you sympathize with the measures she takes to achieve that goal, the salt spray and moral quandaries that swirl through The Lifeboat sting long after the last page.
By David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, April 2012, 432 pages
$27.99; ebook $12.99
Life is complicated when you're a hired gun, but Will Robie's is a bloody circus: You can't read more than a few chapters of this fast-paced, camera-ready thriller before you start to fall behind on the body count.
Robie is a Glock-packing hit man for the U.S. government when his latest mission blows up in his face: He balks upon learning he's been sent to kill the wrong person, then finds himself targeted in turn by a dogged team of assassins. While evading their bullets and bombs — a slew of innocent bystanders aren't quite so lucky — Robie befriends a 14-year-old girl, orphaned for reasons he races through the plot to uncover. All this while rooting out the villains behind his own recent near-death experiences.
Scenes that might make you and me scream in horror spur Baldacci's characters to nothing more than unruffled exchanges. Staring at the body of a man just felled by a sharpshooter's bullet, for example, Robie remarks to a colleague: " 'Round blew right through his head. He won't be talking to anyone anymore.'
"She let out a long breath and stared down at the dead man. 'They're always one step ahead, it seems.'
" 'It seems,' said Robie."
Clones of our intuitive, self-contained hero populate countless thrillers, Baldaccian and otherwise, yet fans of the genre tend to be forgiving types. If you're willing to trade originality for intensity, The Innocent will not disappoint.