One of the few good things to emerge out of the pandemic is a rediscovery of the joy of reading. That joy, of course, is nothing new when it comes to a Carl Hiaasen novel and his latest, Squeeze Me (Knopf), is no exception.

If you thought the current political climate couldn’t get any crazier, you’re wrong, at least in the world according to Hiaasen. Not when we watch a key presidential supporter, and member of a certain Palm Beach club, get swallowed by a massive snake early on. Good thing wildlife wrangler Annie Armstrong is on the job, tasked with ridding a certain wealthy enclave of its (wo)man-eating python problem, which becomes a metaphor for our collective sanity being gobbled up by the news every day.

Turning Hiaasen’s zany, ribald take on what is already pretty much a farcical comedy show turns out to be a scathing portrait of the political behavior that has tortured our psyches for what seems like forever. Squeeze Me squeezes out laughs in a spot-on satirical fashion, as he crafts his most relevant farce ever. (Check out Casey Barrett’s review here.)

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James Rollins’s relentlessly entertaining Unrestricted Access (William Morrow) reads like an assemblage of the author’s greatest hits. And given that Rollins is a literary rock star, that makes for a great album indeed.

Highlighted by a new novella featuring Tucker Wayne and his stalwart K-9 partner Kane, the collection features a combination of stories new and old that chart Rollins’s rise from pulp horror writer to a number-one bestselling author. My personal favorite teamed Sigma Force’s Gray Pierce with none other than Steve Berry’s Cotton Malone. The collection also features some Sigma Force spin-offs, a riveting terror tale set on the streets of San Francisco and a new dog story that’s beautifully realized.

Unrestricted Access serves up a veritable smorgasbord of treats for even the most discerning thriller fan. A savory mind snack that offers superb reading entertainment in a series of swallows instead of one long gulp.

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Continuing to hold the torch passed to him when he took over the Mitch Rapp series for the late, great Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills has fashioned a pandemic-proof thriller in Total Power (Atria).

I say that because COVID-19 has confronted us with a threat so real and dire that you had to wonder how not-as-real literary threats would fare in such a climate, especially when the plot in Total Power involves an everyday enemy like ISIS. Well, worry not because Mills’s latest imagines an America in total breakdown and chaos after a devastating attack cripples the power grid to the point where nothing works. To flush out the bad guys and undo the damage, Rapp and company have to go old school, relying on spyware from a pre-internet world. Hey, it worked for James Bond in his battles against SPECTRE, didn’t it?

In that sense, terrorist groups like ISIS have become the new SPECTRE, villains of both straw and substance eternally committed to our destruction. And that helps make Total Power scintillating, escapist fiction that is eerily on point with what we’re facing today. A tour de force of timely tableau.

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Karen Dionne’s The Wicked Sister (Putnam) reads like a female-driven Kane and Abel with a pair of sisters standing in for the brothers in that Jeffrey Archer classic. Only instead of a bruising family saga, we’re treated to a neo-gothic psychological thriller that’s a true mind-bender.

Troubled Rachel Cunningham has herself committed to a mental institution after believing herself to be guilty of her parents’ murder. Fifteen years later, Rachel finally feels able to re-enter the world by returning home, only to find the past isn’t ready to release its grip on her. The difference is the skewed reality that has haunted her for fifteen years, which may not be so real at all. Worse, her own sister may be the person she can trust the absolute least.

The Wicked Sister brings to mind those classic Betty Davis quasi-horror flicks Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte. Dionne has fashioned a superb character study of murder and madness that reads like Alfred Hitchcock at his best in book form.

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Brad Parks has fashioned a cutting-edge stunner in Interference (Thomas & Mercer), a book that reminded me of Michael Crichton in all the right ways — a stellar, modern-day Frankenstein.

Matt Bronik is no ordinary scientist. He’s a quantum physicist interested in exploring the greatest mysteries in the Universe. Then out of nowhere, he begins suffering grand mal-type seizures with no cause or explanation. Before he and his wife Brigid can get to the bottom of things, Matt disappears. Whether he’s been kidnapped or become a victim of his own explorations into points and dimensions unknown is up for grabs. The book does not lack for suspects or bad guys with so much power at stake.

It’s been a while since I’ve read a book that checked all the technological boxes while telling a great story. Interference most resembles Crichton’s Prey, while also echoing classic science fiction mashups that feature metaphorical Pandora’s boxes and what happens once the lid gets raised.

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The pulse-pounding Collateral (Thomas & Mercer) is such a riveting military thriller that you have to stop and remind yourself that the authors, Jeffrey Wilson and Brian Andrews, don’t just talk the talk; as military veterans, they also walk the walk.

Their sixth entry in the bestselling Tier One series just might be the best and most relevant one yet, following Task Force Ember’s sanctioned retaliation against Russian forces for an unprovoked attack on their clandestine headquarters. Turns out that attack was a preemptive one, aimed at clearing the way for a plot that promises World War III. Good thing John Dempsey and company have more than revenge on their mind, their enemy’s mistake being they did not finish off Task Force Ember when they had the chance.

Andrews and Williams are right up there with the likes of Brad Thor, Brad Tyler and Jack Carr when it comes to writing the best military-based action thrillers going today. All the more effective and prescient because the authors know of what they speak.

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FBI super-agent Karen Vail tracks her most challenging and elusive quarry yet in Alan Jacobson’s riveting and relentless Red Death (Open Road Media).

That’s because this particular serial killer exhibits no particular pattern to choosing his, or her, victims, and those victims are all claimed after seemingly casual encounters. All have apparently been asphyxiated, but the tell-tale signs of that particular mode of murder are nowhere to be found. And, that being the case, Vail has no idea how long the killer has been at this or how many victims he or she has actually claimed.

The luscious Hawaiian settings make for a great counterpoint to the moral depravity Vail finds herself in the midst of. This is a puzzler of a tale worthy of genre classics fashioned by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Agatha Christie, further solidifying Jacobson’s claim as heir to the throne of Thomas Harris.

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To call Susan Santangelo’s superb Politics Can Be Murder (Suspense Publishing) a cozy is not to give this perfectly-timed mystery enough credit.

The aptly titled tale finds amateur sleuth Carol Andrews taking a break from playing detective to manage a political campaign, only to realize that politics can be even more criminal. She took on the role specifically to advocate for traffic safety in her bucolic town but finds plenty of secrets lurking beneath every rock in her new down-and-dirty world. And what if the hit-and-run accident that killed a friend of Carol’s and spurred all this wasn’t an accident at all?

Politics Can Be Murder is a well-paced, well-drawn and well-written small-town mystery that reminded me a bit of Harry Kemelman’s wonderful Rabbi mystery series. Carol and her husband Jim are immensely appealing characters who manage to juggle everyday foibles and concerns with solving crimes happening — literally in this case — right under their feet.

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