Homeland Security agents rush to prevent large-scale cyberwarfare in this thriller.
Think of it as a version of 24. There may be no literal time bombs to defuse, but the countdown is on anyway to stop an online worm labeled Chrysalide from growing wings. Given that it has already forced the shutdown of Los Angeles’ water system and that the Islamic Crusade, a potent terrorist group with connections to Saudi royalty, has given the U.S. two days to pull troops out of Muslim countries or else, time is of the essence. Enter Mahaz Al-Dossari, an exceptionally skilled computer network security specialist and a full professor at UCLA. Could he be the story’s Jack Bauer and save the day? Or will that honor go to another tech expert, Ken Oakey, who is working closely with the feds? Ken recognizes the high stakes (“Criminals, Ken likes to say, only have to get it right once in a while. White hats like Ken have to get it right one hundred percent of the time. That’s twenty-four hours a day, holidays included”). Mahaz has problems brewing on the homefront as well: due to his own roving eye, his marriage of 18 years to the lovely and long-suffering Juliana is in trouble. Juliana, for her part, spends most of her time ferrying their 17-year-old son, Omar, in and out of the hospital due to hydrocephalus, a damaging brain condition. Their teen daughter, Leila, is caught up in her own world, and Juliana worries that her husband will use their two children as pawns if she files for divorce. Lipinski’s (Bloodlines, 2015) crisp writing style expertly sets up suspense along multiple parallel fronts: there’s the cyberattack, of course, and readers also become invested in the fates of all the characters, including the members of the Al-Dossari family. The tale’s strengths include the realistic portrayals of the players, particularly the teens. The identity of the cybervillain, simply referred to as G0d_of_Internet, becomes apparent early on, while the novel’s intense pace comes at a cost: the culprit’s path to terrorism remains underexplored. Nevertheless, Lipinski has an impressive command of her plotlines, and the story barrels along at a fast clip to its somewhat preordained but enjoyable conclusion.
A deadly and exhilarating game of cat and mouse that has all the makings of an engaging series about fighting terrorists.
An FBI agent working on her first undercover assignment becomes too close to one of the domestic terrorists she seeks to expose in this debut crime novel.
Louisianan and FBI Special Agent Alexis “Lexie” Montgomery’s initial covert mission requires an alias—Alexis Marie “Lexie” Taylor—and a temporary move to Los Angeles. In LA, the petite 29-year-old with “a bit of a hippie streak” is charged with the task of unmasking clandestine violators of the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act. Shortly after Lexie embarks on “Operation Blind Fury” and enrolls in a class at Santa Monica College to give her alias some credibility, another Southerner, Savannah Riley, starts her freshman year at the University of Southern California. Savannah’s roommate is pierced, inked, vegan animal activist Haley Crosby. When the roommates attend a meeting of the New World Militia, a radical group that uses violence to save animals, Savannah meets heavily tattooed, gauge-eared Nick Harris. She finds him a sexy, “dark, dangerous man” who would not “fit into her old Southern life,” and they soon become lovers. Lexie’s plan to get asked to participate in underground, illegal action by members of an animal activist terrorist cell brings her into contact with Savannah, Nick, and Haley prior to the trio’s involvement in an NWM assignment that turns deadly. But by the time that happens, Lexie and Savannah have become BFFs. The agent begins to empathize with the passion of the activists, and the gravity of the bureau’s undercover motto, “You build relationships to betray relationships,” weighs heavily on her. The author, a retired FBI agent, worked as an undercover operative for most of her career. Her experience with the activities and emotional involvement of agents makes this a much richer story than most undercover novels. Tension mounts as Lexie becomes increasingly conflicted about her assignment. Dialogue rings true throughout, regardless of the age of the characters. Ridenour’s flair for description is another plus; for example, an activist’s house is described as a place in which “hardwood floors were scratched, and dog hair collected in the corners.” In this serious novel, there are welcome humorous moments, as when a senior agent treats Lexie to a regular coffee, not a latte, because “You have to earn latte status.”
A vivid, suspenseful story about a torn agent on a complex covert mission.
The Prince and the Pauper gets turned on its head in this rags-to-riches thriller.
Rodda’s debut novel opens in the midst of a furious battle during the Cambodian incursion of 1973. Mason Dillon awakes in “a mass of death,” his right leg shattered, his entire unit killed except for two men: himself and his best friend, Adrian Wylde, who saves his life. War over, the two men move deeper into Cambodia, and Mason decides he wants to stay there for good. He’s found a young wife and feels anxious to avoid his old life’s entanglements. But Adrian longs for home, and so Mason proposes a deal. Since he and Adrian “looked alike, they even acted alike, and nearly everyone, even their closest friends, could rarely tell them apart,” Mason suggests they swap identities. This means that Adrian, leaving his shabby Chicago past behind, will take possession of Mason’s substantial inheritance. At first, it’s a dream come true. Adrian meets Mason’s long-lost father, owner of a multimillion-dollar transport company, and is swept into a moneyed life in the Hamptons of the sort he’d never dreamed possible. He becomes “a man-about-town who knew his way around, a blooming sophisticate, carefully groomed for that role.” But there are worms in the apple. His stepmother seduces him aggressively, then threatens him. His new father seems to be in business with some shady characters, including smugglers; medical travails destroy Adrian’s mental health; and just when it seems things can’t get any worse, he finds himself framed for a body of crimes he didn’t commit. “I’m telling you,” rants an FBI agent about Adrian, aka Mason Dillon, “he’s a drug smuggler, an embezzler, and he’s a goddamned murderer!” Rodda’s thriller is just that—thrilling, a fast and fun read that almost casually grapples with some of the most profound metaphysical questions: are we the people we pretend to be? What sits at the center of the self? What obligation do we owe to our own prior lives? And what duty do we owe to our friends? The author injects opulence (Adrian “had his own apartment, a chauffeured limo whenever he wanted it, an unlimited expense account, and lots of personal money to spend on his every whim”), a desire for revenge, a sympathetic woman, the CIA, and a mysterious psychologist into the narrative. With echoes of both Patricia Highsmith and Randy Wayne White, Rodda has distinguished himself with a sterling debut. With luck, readers can expect more books to come.
A thoughtful tale of mistaken identity, fraud, sex, murder, and transcendent friendship.
A complex psychological tale examines grief and unlikely redemption.
In his debut novel, Salamon charts the slow and often torturous paths taken by his two main characters through the traumatic events of their lives as their arcs gradually converge. Margaret lives in a small town outside of Madison, Wisconsin, and we watch as her young life is marked by tragedies, including a hunting trip with her father that goes horribly wrong and the deftly orchestrated scene where she walks into her home seconds after her mother’s botched suicide attempt. Alternating with these episodes told from Margaret’s point of view are scenes from the perspective of Thomas Ackerman, a successful California doctor who finds his life derailed when his beloved wife is diagnosed with inoperable cancer and quickly dies. Margaret is seeking desperately to find a way out of the life she’s enduring. Thomas (the better-realized of the two characters throughout the book’s first half) simply checks out of his own life, becoming so paralyzed with grief that his son hires a preternaturally competent caretaker named Stephen (who “looked like an accountant with a killer weekend golf game”) to take care of the household. Shattered, sleep-deprived Thomas shambles through his days as a kind of emotional zombie, and although he reflects that “tragedy can pull a family together or push them apart,” his own family life seems every bit as poised on the edge of obliteration as Margaret’s, whose sense of isolation only deepens when she becomes a single mother. Salamon displays remarkably tight control over his complicated plot, often enlivening his strong narration with memorable descriptions (to dazed Thomas, a couple of nurses glimpsed at the hospital “seemed impossibly young, as if they were continuing a game of pretend they’d started at home”). The book’s parallel stories of wounded souls converge when Thomas’ son begins to fall in love with Margaret’s daughter, at which point the drama intriguingly multiplies. Fans of the sharp-edged, character-driven novels of Carol Cassella and Chris Bohjalian will find here a promising new author to follow.
An ambitious, insightful novel about two damaged people struggling to overcome their pasts.
A blowfly, a grasshopper leg, and a tiny flower are the unlikely clues that help a zoologist track down a killer in this dazzling island mystery.
Whoever killed nightclub owner and single mother Esmeralda didn’t count on there being any witnesses. But there was one, of sorts: a fly, crawling on Esmeralda’s body as she lay dead on a Canary Islands beach. The fact that the fly wanted to deposit its eggs in the fatal knife laceration reveals a lot about the temperature of the body and its decaying process—information that could help establish a time of death. A katydid leg and a floret tangled in the victim’s hair indicate that the crime took place in a different location. But where, and why? Epiphany Jerome, a Mexican-American woman with a doctorate in zoology and expertise is necrophageous scavengers, aims to help local authorities. She’s vacationing on the island with her Italian-German husband, Mimmo, in a rental owned by the victim’s mother, Constanze Therese; Esmerelda’s 11-year-old granddaughter, Serenella, likes to play with the couple’s dog. Epiphany and Mimmo’s true home is in Berlin, where she works at the Museum of Natural History and he runs a restaurant. The eatery is a favorite of the city’s elite and the preferred restaurant of a redheaded call girl that Epiphany calls “Strawberry Shortcake.” That woman’s Russian Mafia bodyguard, Mikail “the Finger” Petrove, is involved in drug dealing and other gang-related crimes. These characters both surprisingly show up on the island, giving credence to Mimmo’s theory that drugs are at the heart of Esmeralda’s murder. Epiphany and Mimmo’s relationship is rich with conflict as well as passionate, “California firestorm” sex. This smartly written novel’s pacing varies, from methodical autopsies in a morgue to a heart-pounding attack in a deserted canyon restaurant. It also has a palpable international flavor, with its sprinkling of Italian, Spanish, and German dialogue and references to Mexican cultural beliefs. Observations about death, ingrained Catholicism, and female independence add depth to the narrative, and the dialogue also rings true; for example, Esmeralda’s manicurist explains that her late client, a bar-owner, drank too much, but “it’s hard to be in that kind of place all night drinking Fanta.”
A buzz-worthy initial offering in a planned mystery series.
Viola (Luna One, 2014, etc.) amasses a series of blistering horror stories, including a few of his own, from authors who tell of vampires, demons, killers, and things better left hidden in the dark.
Steve Rasnic Tem opens this collection with “The Brollachan,” a Lovecraft-ian narrative in which a creature’s evil may live on through its lineage. The stories here are largely traditional with contemporary touches. Some take familiar setups in unexpected directions. In the post-apocalyptic world of Stephen Graham Jones’ “The Man Who Killed Texas,” for example, a guy makes a harrowing decision to protect the Lone Star State from a plague; and humankind survives an alien invasion in Mario Acevedo’s “Zôu Gôu” only to discover that the horror may not be over. Others play with the relative safety of modern settings: a golfing buddy disappears from a golf course in Sean Eads’ “Lost Balls,” while the office Christmas party in J.V. Kyle’s (a pseudonym for Viola and Keith Ferrell) “Bathroom Break” takes a ghastly turn. The prose is consistently outstanding, and there isn’t a single dud here. A few stories, however, do stand above the rest. Ferrell’s Poe-esque “Be Seated” turns a simple chair into a macabre entity; Jason Heller’s “The Projectionist” features a beast that’ll make readers quiver or queasy or a little of both; and in Viola’s “The Librarian,” a man who checks out and returns the same six library books every week isn’t even the eeriest part of the tale. A couple of stories are predominantly tongue-in-cheek: there’s a vampire curious about a batch of especially delicious victims (Kyle’s “Fangs”), and guess what stoners do with a magic lamp in Acevedo’s “Gurgle. Gurgle.”? All 20 stories, disconcerting in their own ways, leave impressions individually as well as collectively. Illustrations from artist Lovett[b1]—searing images that look as if they’ve been etched in stone and spattered with blood—precede each story.
A slew of gloriously disturbing, well-told tales to unnerve readers.