“Thriller” is a genre often thought of as akin to mysteries, but these books set themselves apart. Some contain puzzles, but the real effect of the stories are to engage your senses. Experience the captivating lives of these characters as each page raises the stakes to dramatic levels. Whether these thrillers featured in our Spring 2016 issue stop your heart or set it racing, one of these books is sure to have a gripping effect.
An exquisitely drawn Texas landscape and a former lawman become a means for exploring topics of change and consequence in this historical novel.
A former Texas Ranger struggling to adapt to new life circumstances, desperado brothers on the run, and the discovery of the bodies of three unknown girls in the hard, dry fields of a small panhandle town combine in one compelling story in Larry Sweazy’s masterful Depression-era novel A Thousand Falling Crows.
Sonny Burton is slowly coming to grips with the loss of his right arm after a shoot-out with the infamous Bonnie and Clyde. His injury has forced early retirement from the only career he’s known for forty years. Sonny, a widower, is a sensible and very likable central figure to the events unfolding in and around his hometown, which has been hit hard by both the hot, unyielding weather and a hardscrabble economy.
Events occur during the fourteen-month period from June 1933 to August 1934. The author seamlessly weaves authentic history into the mix, making the characters seem that much more alive. Sweazy exquisitely captures Sonny’s essence and struggles: “Things had changed since the end of Prohibition. People liked to gather in saloons and taverns, but Sonny never had. What went on in those places held no sugar for him.”
Other well-drawn characters include Eddie and Tió Renaldo, twin brothers who are learning to play fast and loose with the law; Carmen Hernandez, the sixteen-year-old daughter of Sonny’s hospital acquaintance, Aldo, who has disappeared from her home; and Jesse, Sonny’s only child, a headstrong young man following in his father’s footsteps and now back in the area as a Ranger looking into the deaths of the unidentified young women.
Sweazy’s text is an absolute treat for the senses: sentences like “Clouds were as rare as a fat jackrabbit. The air was as still as the inside of a kettle” and “She was tall, blonde and spooned into her white uniform” soar.
This book, while partly a mystery, mainly concerns itself with day-to-day living and survival. It’s also about the choices one makes and the results of those decisions, whether one is sixteen or sixty-two.
The character of Sonny Burton will resonate with readers. His everyman struggles with change, loneliness, and relationships are appealing across both gender and generational lines.
ROBIN FARRELL EDMUNDS (February 29, 2016)
Lost love and complex human nature are at the center of this novel about recovering from the past.
Nikki and Mark are initially drawn together when their significant others die together in a tragic accident. Their budding friendship is tested even further when a man from Nikki’s troubled past threatens her new life and her young teen daughter in Samuel Ligon’s unsettling novel, Among the Dead and Dreaming.
Their story is told from the unique perspectives of multiple characters—most living, but several deceased, who chime in with their thoughts from the periods that they were a part of Nikki and Mark’s lives. Such interesting literary devices are not difficult to follow; names precede each section of text, and words from dead characters are italicized.
The “voices” depicted are distinct and easily distinguishable from one another. Thirteen-year-old Alina is combative, always questioning her mother’s motives. Mark reflects on his past political career and is torn with regret related to his girlfriend. Burke Chandler, the shadow of Nikki’s past, is seeking revenge for his brother’s murder.
Nikki herself displays compelling fortitude: “I didn’t know how to do anything but run, and I wasn’t going to run. Not this time.” At the same time, it’s chilling to watch Burke spiral downward. He is drawn convincingly as a self-righteous man following a “guiding hand.”
There are adult situations, adult language, and more than one scene of brutal violence in the novel. Themes repeat throughout: of first love, lost love, and searching for love in the arms of another, and of children left to search for their true paternity. In the last quarter of the book, the focus is solely on four pivotal characters, and other story lines sadly fall away.
Ligon’s is a convincing presentation of human nature. Nikki laments at one point, “We’d end up getting married … and I would shrink a little every year and lose pieces of myself until there’d be nothing left. But wasn’t that what happened to everyone?” Fear is what’s driven Nikki in the past, and now her past has caught up with her with a vengeance.
ROBIN FARRELL EDMUNDS (February 29, 2016)
A Donovan Nash Thriller
Sharp dialogue and capable protagonists make for a compelling espionage novel.
Philip Donlay’s Pegasus Down, the sixth book in his Donovan Nash series, is an action-packed thrill ride from the opening scene. This enthralling story follows Donovan Nash as he dashes to Eastern Europe to save his wife, the novel’s other point-of-view protagonist, Dr. Laura McKenna.
The opening scenes present McKenna on a CIA-led extraction in Europe. The clandestine mission is off the books, which escalates the tension and action when her plane crashes. With McKenna’s whereabouts unknown, Nash springs into action for a rescue mission. The full implications of this mission are not known, but eventually Nash learns the seriousness of his wife’s mission: a terrorist group has acquired a stealth aircraft with the ability to deliver a nuclear device.
The story, which uses alternating points of view from Nash and McKenna for much of the narrative, is no damsel-in-distress tale. McKenna deftly demonstrates this early in the novel. She’s a strong, intuitive, and compelling heroine. She just happens to have a husband who makes a perfect partner in action.
Nash is written as a dynamic and absorbing yet troubled hero. He has a hidden past that only his inner circle knows, and this creates a conflict that drives our hero and carries great emotional beats throughout the story. While there is the overarching conflict of the rescue mission and its fallout, the story really sets its hooks early with Nash’s emotional turmoil.
Donlay’s writing is crisp and direct. Every sentence serves its purpose, propelling the plot forward while aptly sharing relevant points from previous Nash adventures. The point-of-view characters offer unique perspectives, which combined make for well-developed one-two narrative punch. Furthermore, Donlay writes sharp, natural dialogue. While it’s peppered with jargon, the dialogue is neither burdensome nor difficult to grasp. Donlay, a pilot himself, layers context to clarify what might otherwise be arduous language.
Fans who love espionage, action, or thrillers will find great entertainment in this book. Being familiar with previous Donovan Nash novels is not a requirement for enjoying Pegasus Down. Donlay weaves important aspects of previous adventures into this tale, helping it stand alone within the Donovan Nash series.
RON WATSON (February 29, 2016)
This thrilling adventure with global, biblical implications is a fascinating read.
Drew Korchula, a disillusioned American in Istanbul, finds himself in possession of a Dead Sea scroll with earth-shattering implications in The Christos Mosaic by Vincent Czyz. Drew, along with a colorful group of allies, fights off assassins while attempting to decipher the scrolls and discover the truth, in a thriller that deftly balances history and fiction.
Half Romani and half Croatian, Drew drifts through life without really excelling at anything. Divorced and working as an English teacher in Istanbul, he befriends a Turkish dwarf named Kadir over their shared love of antiquities. A suspicious death prompts Kadir to leave a package with Drew. The package supposedly contains two scrolls. Being a cagey black-market dealer, Kadir manages to trick everyone, and the scrolls are safely hidden away. Drew and Kadir investigate the authenticity of the scrolls as their world crumbles. The two form an alliance with a former commando in the hopes of surviving long enough to either sell the scrolls or learn the truth, which may indicate that Jesus Christ never existed.
Drew’s journey, despite involving exploding boats and guns galore, is largely intellectual. As new information is brought to light, the understanding is provided through Drew’s eyes. This adds a helpful lens and context, especially since much of the information is deeply biblical and entrenched in history.
The secondary plot follows Drew’s attempt to reconcile with his wife. The counterbalance between domestic troubles and thrilling adventures helps round out characters and function as a respite between harrowing encounters. Drew begins the story as an indecisive man with frequent bouts of rage, leading to his divorce. Following his narrow scrapes with sinister forces while doggedly trying to make amends is surprisingly effective at keeping the reader’s interest through the more bogged-down parts.
Fans of The Da Vinci Code and similar books will want to pick up The Christos Mosaic. It has all the important benchmarks of a thrilling adventure: global conspiracy, shocking revelations, thrilling shootouts, and multiple betrayals. The story is well written with strong plotting and vivacious characters. Despite some occasional information overload, The Christos Mosaic is a fascinating read.
JOHN M. MURRAY (February 29, 2016)
A U-boat commander undertakes a daring mission in this wartime novel full of tense action and romantic respite.
Set in the early 1940s, just as the United States is entering World War II, this gripping story that traces the decisions of the commander of a German U-boat is filled with action, adventure, and emotional turmoil.
Passenger, the latest novel by F. R. Tallis, follows Siegfried Lorenz, commander of a German U-boat patrolling the North Atlantic. Lorenz is fair, capable, and well liked by his crewmen. He is assigned to collect two prisoners and bring them to Brest. But the mission does not go as planned.
Dialogue is fast paced, and the action is vivid and realistic. Most events take place on the submarine, where Lorenz is shown to be an effective leader. But more is learned about the man and his emotional strife through dream sequences that include a woman in his life. The dreams provide a glimpse into his life before the war and the weight of being commander. These revelations make him relatable and provide a contrast to the war-focused action scenes.
Other subtle actions further reveal his character and hint at additional internal conflict, such as when he is uncomfortable being recognized by civilians for his efforts in the war. A few emotional moments between him and his crew are endearing too, including an exchange between Lorenz and a crewman whose wife gives birth while he is on the mission.
Mysterious events on the submarine, from accidents to failed equipment to unusual, improbable sightings, are all rationalized by the crew, and by Lorenz. Through these plot elements, themes related to supernatural elements, and even the concept of luck, are explored.
Shore scenes are a welcome respite from the tensions of war. Action and adventure are effectively coupled with carefully detailed emotional connections between characters, heightening the tension of the whole work, particularly following escalations that put the crew in danger.
A range of paces and a mix of themes, from the action of war to romance between battles, make this a story that is full of adventure and more.
MARIA SIANO (February 29, 2016)
A frustrated PhD student discovers a voracious hole beneath his office in this fun and disturbing work of science fiction.
It seems a little bizarre to begin a novel with “then,” as if it’s a continuation of a prior thought, but Dale Bailey pulls off that and much more in The Subterranean Season, his tale of the woes of PhD student Alex Kern.
Alex is teaching composition at West Georgia University, trying to pass his exams, and attempting to keep in step with his girlfriend. He’s not terribly successful—or at all successful, really—at any of the above, and things are just getting worse and worse. He moves into a dumpy new office underneath the stadium, adding insult to injury, since athletics trump academics at this school and his job is to try to get athletes to actually pass their classes. Then, on the other side of his office door, Alex finds that there’s a strange hole that swallows objects. Well, people, actually. That seems to present a problem. Or rather, it fixes one. Or two or three.
From the moment Bailey calls the university library a “brick ziggurat of questionable taste” on the first page, it’s clear that these pages are going to move along fast, and observers will just need to keep up. Indeed, beyond the office computer categorized as “Jurassic era” with its “Brontosaurus egg” monitor, Bailey throws out word choices that might stretch imaginations just a bit. Dudgeon, anyone? Flensed? How about deliquesced or caviled?
Bailey’s prior work has won him awards in the areas of fantasy and science fiction, but the science-fiction element of this story takes a back seat to Alex’s just-plain-messed-up life. In fact, the book is really about his messed-up life, with just a touch of science fiction. It is rather fun to tag along on this sloppy, pot-hazed descent.
As the cloud around Alex seems to get thicker and thicker, you start to wonder how this guy continues to put one foot in front of the other. And you definitely wonder, as the book progresses, just where all this is going. But not to worry—Bailey wraps it up neatly enough, and quite disturbingly. This novel offers an interesting look at the inner workings of a university, as well as commentary on how easily a life can spiral out of control.
BILLIE RAE BATES (February 29, 2016)