Action-Adventures, Psychological Thrillers, and more
Oracle Series, Book 1 • By A. Claire Everward • ★★★ ½
The central question in technothriller Oracle’s Hunt doesn’t get revealed until nearly halfway through the book. But part of the mystery of the book is exactly what that central question is, and Everward does an excellent job disguising and feinting. The twists are fantastic and make Oracle's Hunt a compelling read.
The plot itself is well-structured and moves along quickly. However, the first several chapters are weighted down by backstory. The two main characters are well-drawn and complex. Lara, the main character, is strong, brilliant, gifted, and capable. This is in contrast to the agent, Donovan, assigned to investigate the explosion that opens the book, who is intelligent but driven by emotion. Two small problems, however: Lara's so "good" that she her personal arc doesn't have a lot of room for growth; Donovan is so controlled by his knee-jerk reactions and uncontrollable emotions that I have trouble believing he’s considered the finest investigator in the agency.
The investigator and Lara butt heads at the beginning, and he threatens to shoot Lara a couple of times early on, too. (It doesn’t seem metaphorical or very jokey.) Then, as their relationship inevitably transforms into flirting and potential romance, the “I’ll have to shoot you” line becomes their cutesy code for doing something the other finds frustrating. I mention this not just because the threat of actual violence between the two of them is romanticized (which is kinda icky), but also because Lara is shown to care so much for not only the people she serves but also for human life overall that it’s simply not believable for her character to interpret the shooting threat as something kitschy and romantic. And while the investigator is hunky and intelligent, he’s also possessive and controlling—which Lara seems to embrace.
Although their boy-meets-girl, boy-and-girl-hate-each-other, boy-and-girl-start-to-flirt dynamic is problematic, the action of the plot is mostly solid. The reveal of the central question in the middle of the book is truly shocking. And the way the question plays out—the people in danger and how they deal with it—is all page-turning goodness.
The secondary characters are less clear than Lara and Donovan, and people we think are going to be important early on more or less disappear as the plot goes on.
As the big twist shows, Oracle’s Hunt is based on an interesting concept, and I’m interested to see how it’s manifested in future books. Everward shows a real gift for plot and structure. The romance might be less of a problem in future books in the series as well. It’s a solid if uneven start to a thriller series.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
By Glenn Muller • ★★★★
There are a lot of things to like about Boomerang, an ensemble-cast thriller from author Glenn Muller. The opening scene, for one—we’re in the middle of a doomed rocket launch in the Soviet Union—is gripping, and there’s a real sense of urgency with the action.
After that gripping opening scene, Muller takes quite a while to set up the scenario, introducing a multitude of characters, many who never make another appearance. It’s hard to keep track of all of them. The ones who do stick around—and there are still a lot of them—are interesting and well-rounded. That’s not usually the case with thrillers, especially one with so many moving parts.
As the characters come into focus, and their goal becomes clearer, the action hums forward nicely. That goal? To find a fallen Chinese satellite in a mostly-rural Canadian town before the other people do—but the technology onboard the satellite may have critical implications for the security of North America.
Boomerang is the rare thriller in which you find yourself rooting for all the characters to win—even though they’re all competing with each other. Even the gruff Chinese secret agent who is set up as the book’s antagonist has a compelling point of view at times. Muller has a gift for making the characters come alive on the page.
But Boomerang can’t decide if it wants to play it serious or tongue-in-cheek. As the novel progresses, the tone shifts from the former to the latter. That’s too bad, because the stakes, which seemed impossibly high at the beginning of the novel, sink lower and lower until the plot ventures into “madcap” territory. The satellite-chasing brothers who drive up to Canada from Tennessee have the madcappiest of the madcap adventures, but so to does the American field agent who flits from all-business at the beginning to getting dangerously close to a Bond caricature by the end. (Although the romance arc of his character is pretty satisfying.) As a result, the resolution of the central situation—which seemed so vital at the beginning—almost feels like an afterthought. At least the change in tone is subtle and not flip-a-switch-jarring—and again, once the setup is complete, the story is never boring.
Muller has great command of the language. It’s clear he has put hours and hours of research into satellite functionality and challenges, as well as the geographic challenges of his setting. Often, this type of research results in overwritten, pedantic passages. Not here, though. Muller writes tense, vivid action sequences, and has none of the "Basil Exposition" cringe-worthy conversations that are often rife in thrillers.
The bottom line? Boomerang is an enjoyable, satisfying novel. Great characterization got me past the slow setup. All in all, a worthwhile read.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
Dr. Lillian Whyte Adventures, Book 3 • By C.B. Samet • ★★★★★
Gray Horizon, the third book in the Dr. Whyte Adventure trilogy, follows an emergency room doctor (who happens to be married to a CIA agent) on a dangerous trip around Europe, as her husband tries to keep the hatches battened down in the nation's capital.
When I read Gray Horizon, I hadn’t read the first two novels in the series. But Samet gives us just enough of a taste of what happened before—which also seem like rollicking tales of international intrigue—to make me wonder about the details of her earlier adventures. While Gray Horizon is perfectly good as a standalone, I did wonder how much subtext I was missing.
Missing subtext or no, though, this book was hard to put down. In fact, I didn't put it down once Dr. Lillian Whyte landed in Iceland—perhaps four chapters in. That’s when the adventure really kicks into high gear.
Samet’s characters are interesting and complex. I especially liked Ivan; apparently he had a large antagonistic role in book one. There’s no doubt that he is incredibly complicated, yet he’s easy to root for.
Both the main plot, with Dr. Lillian Whyte and Ivan in Europe, and the secondary plot, with the CIA husband trying to keep a lid on everything in Washington, DC—are engaging on all fronts. Each of the two stories paints a vastly different picture, but Samet does a great balancing act to keep them both intriguing.
C.B. Samet has a strong voice in this book, perfect for a thriller. She’s an EVVY award winner for her fantasy books, and the bold, confident prose and propulsive plot make it easy to see why she’s won the award. The plot is as engaging as anything Dan Brown has written in the last ten years. Samet’s book is a joy to read.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
John Milton, Book 1 • By Mark Dawson • ★★★
The Cleaner is a fast-paced page turner. The characters are compelling, the plot is both well-constructed and believable (for a thriller like this, anyway).
I can see why this series is advertised as being similar to Lee Child's Jack Reacher series: Milton is a loner with a violent government-sponsored past (just like Reacher) who goes about righting a wrong he sees in the world (just like Reacher) and can't always foresee the collateral damage (just like Reacher). But John Milton is a far more compelling character than Reacher; perhaps equally stoic, but more believable, more flawed, and more human.
However, two philosophical problem areas with the book take the enjoyment level down a couple of notches.
First of all, this is clearly a "white savior" story. Milton comes into the lives of an African-American family and extricates them from a bad situation. Unlike other famous white savior stories, it's not all lollipops and roses; at the end of the book, it's clear that many of the people Milton tries to "save" are worse off.
Secondly, women are portrayed only in relationship to male characters. The book doesn't come close to passing the Bechdel test, either: there are only two named female characters (Elijah's mother and Pops' girlfriend). Neither of them have agency; both of them "need to be rescued" by Milton. (Actually, there is another female character who is named, but she only appears briefly in the prologue.)
If I were to ignore the philosophical problem areas, I'd give this book 4 stars. It's an enjoyable read on many levels.
I'll still go on to Book 2 in the Milton series to see if these issues are anomalous. The early Reacher novels had similar issues (and the less said about Lee Child's early books' fascination with genital mutilation, the better), but as the series went on, the main female characters became much richer, who had agency, took action, and affected the plot—not just papier-mâché constructs waiting for Reacher to rescue them. I'm hopeful the Milton books will show similar growth.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
By Charles Lemoine • ★★★★★
I didn't visit the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits in L.A. until I was a grownup with kids, but I found it fascinating. So reading Preservation, a mystery/thriller with a brilliant female scientist who years to unlock the mystery of a prehistoric woman whose remains were found in the Tar Pits, was right up my alley.
The scientist, Mariska Stevenson, is ambitious and driven—and sometimes annoyingly headstrong. In spite of her flair for the melodramatic, Mariska is a hero you can't help but root for her as she uncovers puzzle piece after puzzle piece.
Preservation is a real page-turner, especially after the bodies start piling up and the attempts on Mariska's life get more and more brazen. The interplay of modern technology and archaeology works well, and should appeal to Kathy Reichs fans.
The theme of identity is strong as well: where you came from can either define you, ruin you, or inspire you. That common thread connects through the narrative and has repercussions for many of the characters—especially Mariska.
—Paul Austin Ardoin