Sunday, October 28, 2018

Top-Notch Thriller from John E. Stith, PUSHBACK


If you already know the name of author John E. Stith, chances are you've been reading his high-octane science fiction. His author website, neverend.com, strongly reflects the space travel component of books that have taken him into the finals for the Nebula, Sejun, and La Tour Eiffel Science Fiction awards. But those books have often had a mystery component (see Deep Quarry and Death Tolls).

With PUSHBACK, Stith leaves behind science fiction entirely -- although that might not be clear in the opening of this thriller, when Dave Barlow takes his significant girlfriend to his high-school reunion, and finds himself erased from the class entirely. It blows apart the romance. But before it can totally knock Dave off kilter -- with his serious case of PTSD, that's a real possibility -- he gets a text from an unidentified sender: "How does it feel to be forgotten so quickly? Have a nice day. [Smiley face]"

Okay, somehow this is a setup, right? Maybe a practical joke? Except the cascade of events that follow, some of them directly life-threatening, are clearly not a jest. Someone's after Dave Barlow, even willing to attach the investment firm where he's worked. And there can be only one thing he's done that might cause such persecution: survived a car crash in which his then-fiancée perished.
Multiple nightmares got past my defenses during the night, and by the time I should be getting up, I felt even more tired than when I'd gone to bed. ... Two major events in three days gave me an awful feeling about what life might be like if I couldn't defuse this. I was a little closer to understanding Butch and Sundance's decision to flee to Bolivia. And my question was a bit like theirs: "Who is doing this?"
Stith's sci-fi expertise turns out to be excellent background for realizing how the Internet and social media and a few well-placed real-life gossip chains can be mobilized to swiftly destroy a life. His pacing is ideal for time-driven suspense and threat, and as narrator-with-issues, Dave Barlow is a terrific "Everyman" with vulnerabilities and a tough time keeping his anger in control.

One extra pleasure: Aside from an ordinary screwdriver and borrowing a few electronic items from a buddy, Dave Barlow's efforts in PUSHBACK to escape the cyberbullying and other horrors designed for him require no special tech expertise -- it's all about how painful ordinary life can be when a bully (or two?) can line you up front and center. I couldn't put the book down, so it's lucky for dinner that it ended around page 300.

John E. Stith
I hope Stith will keep pushing into the crime fiction area. He's a natural.

PS:  Looking for more mystery reviews, from cozy to very dark? Browse the Kingdom Books mysteries review blog here.



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