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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Sentinel by Matthew Dunn

In Spycatcher, we were introduced to Will Cochrane – Spartan – the most lethal instrument in the arsenal of MI6. To become Spartan, and there is only one, Will had to pass a torturous year long training program of which all before him had failed.

All except one. The first Spartan was in deep cover in Russia for years and had established a complex network of contacts from lowly peasants to some in the highest levels of the military and the various renditions of the KGB. He also managed to survive 6 years of imprisonment and torture, never revealing his true identity or what he was doing.

But MI6 couldn’t be sure that their initial Spartan was still reliable after what he endured in prison so they cut back his authority and the freedom he had as Spartan, giving him a new assignment and code name – Sentinel.

One of Sentinel’s network is killed in remote Norway, leaving a cryptic message about a traitor and a plan to draw the US and Russia into a war. Cochrane is sent to find Sentinel, learn the details of the incomplete message, and stop this insane plot.

The head of the most elite unit of the Russian’s version of the SEALs (code name Razin) is picking off Sentinel’s top contacts one at a time. Spartan and Sentinel join forces to protect Sentinel’s network and kill Razin. But Razin stays one step ahead in his hunt and in a hand-to-hand confrontation, turns out to be Spartan’s equal – something Spartan’s never experienced before.

Razin’s plan, if successful, will probably work. The idea is to make a routine military maneuver look like an attack on Russian soil, thereby prompting a Russian response.

This is #2 in the Spycatcher series (the third Dunn book I’ve read) and Dunn tells us more and more about Cochrane’s history and how he came to be recruited and to become Spartan. Dunn delivers the goods in a way that only one who has been there can. If I had to nitpick, it would be in his overly long description of a stakeout and pursuit by his team of spooks. In Spycatcher, it was riveting. In Sentinel, it’s bordering on repetitious. Hope the same scenario doesn’t turn up in the next book, Sling Shot.  But that won’t stop me from reading Sling Shot or Counterspy, the next 2 books in this series. 

East Coast Don

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Organ Takers

The Organ Takers is the second novel by Richard Van Anderson, a former heart surgeon who refers to his genre as “surgical suspense.” This is a plausible crime novel which takes place in a medical setting. The story is about a talented chief surgical resident, David McBride, who gets trapped by a psychopathic attending physician, Andrew Turnbull, into helping him manipulate the order of patients on a liver transplant list. Turnbull was making $1,000,000 per patient, until they got caught. Rather than admit that David had been an unwitting accomplice, he declared that he was a co-conspirator. Both men lost their license, so David was thrown into a non-medical world to find his future, and for the incredible wealth it was bound to create for him, Turnbull created his own company to pursue the art of organ transplant.

Except, Turnbull needed funding, and what better way to do that than sell some kidneys on the black market. Of course, they needed donors, and who better than homeless people who could be dumped back on the streets minus one of their vital organs. But, Turnbull needed a skilled surgeon for what was a complicated procedure, and without identifying himself to David, Turnbull blackmailed David into doing the job.

The plot was good, and it was mostly a plot driven story. I was surprised at the chaos and death at the end, but the author also set up a continuing series in a most clever way. The character development was a bit weak, but the science was well-explained. I may not be in a hurry to get to Van Anderson’s first novel, but the quality of this work is not amateurish.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Stealing Sturgis by Matthew Iden

Stealing Sturgis is the first Matthew Iden novel I’ve read that does not feature his Marty Singer character.  Consequently, I was supremely disappointed.

Randy Watson gets out of prison and heads to his hometown of Brumley.  Brumley is a small burg in Southwestern Virginia and doesn’t offer much in the way of employment.  Lee Baylor, a former high school friend to Randy owns an auto repair garage but can barely generate enough cash to make his mortgage payments… a fact that Lee’s girlfriend, Raylene won’t let him forget.  Nonetheless, he hires Randy hoping to raise his volume of business.  After a few weeks Lee’s plan just isn’t working and the bank threatens to foreclose.  Randy, always looking for the quick easy score, comes up with a scheme to visit the annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, North Dakota and steal Jason Ford’s vintage motorcycle.  Ford is a somewhat successful movie star/ producer who gets his grins from slumming with his biker buddies in Sturgis every year.  Randy and Lee now desperate for a break, head for Sturgis with larceny on their minds and a half-baked plan to strike it rich.  They don’t know that Ford is near financial bankruptcy himself.  Plus, Raylene has sent her hillbilly thug brother to Sturgis to bring Lee home.  So the outlaws’ plans have bigger risks and smaller rewards than they’d hoped.

I love Iden’s Marty Singer series and thus picked up Stealing Sturgis with great expectations.  While the writing is sound and the plot plausible, I just don’t like the characters.  I can’t relate to them or feel any empathy for their situation… it’s like Dumb and Dumber without the comedy or the heart.  I advise taking a pass on this one and wait for Iden’s next Marty Singer novel.  This book aside, Matthew Iden is the best new author I’d found this year.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Painter by Peter Heller

A lot of people might say Jim Stegner lives a charmed life. He’s a talented painter who lives in New Mexico, knows a gallery owner who trumpets his work and then sells the paintings for five figures. Stegner is on an artistic roll, in demand for his work, and a colorful interview. He is also an accomplished fly fisherman. What’s to levy about his life? Paint when you are inspirited and fish when you aren't.

Try his two failed marriages, his teenage daughter who used to love fishing before shifting her interests to drugs. And his temper. The son of an Oregon logger, he has a reputation. He puts down people who’ve wronged him, carries a .41 magnum revolver, did some time for attempted murder of a guy who lusted after his daughter. Ended up moving to a valley in rural Colorado to paint, to fish, to heal.

Returning from a outing on a quality stream, he sees Dell Siminoe, an outfitter, savagely beating a small horse that was reluctant to get in a livestock trailer. Stegner protests and puts the guy into the dirt.

A few days later, he heads out to do some nighttime fishing and comes across an encampment headed by Siminoe; they are all drinking and bragging about the next day’s hunt. Still seething about Dell beating that horse, Stegner creeps up on the camp and waits for Dell to eventually have to go take a leak. When the time comes, Stegner whacks Dell across the head with a rock. What the rock started, the river finished.

The locals don’t much like the Siminoe’s. They’ve been investigated numerous time for poaching, so maybe the police won’t look too hard. But the Siminoe clan has a long memory and the wherewithal to do something about Stegner.

Author Heller has a history writing for numerous outdoor magazines and his descriptions of the landscape and fishing are lyrical and downright musical. Not so much when the narrative was directed at Stegner’s art or the vengeance the Siminoe clan attempt to pour on Stegner. The writing style was either abrupt phrases (Ken Bruen does it way better) or long narratives and I never was able to be get accustomed to the back and forth of styles. Having said that, I’m betting plenty of readers will appreciate the ying and yang of styles and like the extremes of Stegner’s personality.

East Coast Don

Friday, December 12, 2014

Robert B. Parker's Blind Spot by Reed Farrel Coleman

Reed Farrel Coleman has been commissioned by the estate of Robert B. Parker to continue the Jesse Stone series.  Blind Spot is Coleman’s first in this series.

Jesse Stone has failed more than once in his life.  First an injury ended his chances to play short stop for the L.A. Dodgers.  Then he became a Detective for LAPD but his drinking ended that career.  His marriage to Jenn failed about the same time.  Now he is chief of police in the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts… still drinking, still hanging on to what he has, yet haunted by what could have been.

Jesse’s former minor league team mate, Vic Prado invites him to a team reunion in New York.  Odd because Vic had gone on to have a successful major league baseball career and had not kept in contact.  This after he had been involved in the mishap that ended Jesse’s baseball career and had married the beautiful Kayla, Jesse’s girlfriend from those days.  At the reunion both Kayla and Vic tell Jesse they need to meet with him in private after the party.  He also meets the lovely Dee, a friend and younger version of Kayla.
But Jesse’s trip is cut short by a murder back in Paradise.  A young woman is found murdered at the aging and nearly abandon summer estate of a local wealthy family.  Their college age son, Ben is missing but his car remains in the driveway.  Ben’s father brings in his attorney who complicates Jesse’s investigation.  But the more Jesse learns, the more he becomes convinced that his out of the blue invitation to NYC from old buddy Vic is related to the murder in his jurisdiction.

I’m a longtime fan of Robert B. Parker and really appreciate his flawed yet noble characters with quick wits and efficiency with words.  But Coleman takes these qualities and expands on them.  He delves into the backgrounds and motivations of each character, not with boring drivel, but in a way that enriches the experience.  I learned more about Jesse Stone in this one novel than in all of the six or eight I’d read (or viewed in movie form) previously.  I happened to hear Reed Farrel Coleman talk about his experience with Robert B. Parker when his book tour took him through St. Louis.  He is a longtime RBP fan himself and has apparently had some success with his own Moe Prager series.  I’ll definitely read his next Jesse Stone novel and maybe sample some of his earlier work.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Hell is Empty by Craig Johnson

Longmire. #7.

Late Spring in Absaroka County, Wyoming. Seems like a simple enough task. Walt and his Basque deputy Sancho are doing a prisoner transfer. Raynaud Shade, a serious sociopath and schizophrenic, and a couple other convicts have to be transported through the county. The Marshall’s service contracts a company and each county has to sign off on such transport. Problem is this company has had issues with prisoners getting away so Walt won’t allow Ameri-Trans through his county, which means he has to do the transport.

When they reach the county line, he has to hand off the prisoners to the next sheriff who is also accompanied by reps from the US Marshall’s service and the FBI. Raynaud, a Canadian Indian adopted way back by a Crow family, is seriously deranged. Out in the middle of nowhere in the high prairie, the FBI has to use GPS to determine the county line. The transfer seems to go fine. Raynaud decides to confess to a 10 year old murder of a young Indian boy and offers to direct this group to the grave, which sits close to the county line and at the base of Cloud Peak Wilderness in Absaroka County. Walt sends Sancho home while he wants to see about this murder, as it might be a death he was unable to solve all those years ago.

A local diner brings some food out for this cop-crook party. But it turns out our boy Raynaud had a contact on the outside who helps Raynaud and the other convicts escape during which a number of the lawmen are shot and a couple hostages are taken.

The smart thing would be to phone for help and wait for backup. But given Raynaud’s predilections, he decides to go after them as they head into the Cloud Peak Wilderness – right into a late spring blizzard.

So what started off as a routine exchange has now degenerated into a foot chase into the wilderness made all the more difficult with the snowstorm that gets more intense the higher they go. And now it becomes not simply a chase, but becomes an intense and frightening survival tale as Walt fights against what he should’ve done (waited for backup) versus his fear for the hostages driven by his sense of duty.

Temps well below zero, gale force winds attempting to cleanse the surrounding landscape, snow blowing so hard that it seems more like shrapnel. Survival is not for the fastest, the strongest, or the toughest. It’s meant for those who will make the commitment, which seems beyond human understanding when done alone. Where talking with the grandfather of the slain boy, Virgil White Buffalo (is he real or a vision?), can make it next to impossible to distinguish reality from Indian mystical forces that guide the living to the Camp of the Dead or the Beyond Country, depending on your tribal tales. Walt comes to appreciate repeated references to Dante’s Inferno as he truly experiences that Hell really in empty because all the Devils are here on Earth and have zeroed in on the Cloud Peak Wilderness.

I think Longmire must be a descendant of Jeremiah Johnson as he calls on all his skills and determination to catch Raynoud Shade and resist repeated attempts to be called to the Camp of the Dead. Longmire’s posse of family and friends (Henry Standing Bear, daughter Cady, Vic, the Ferg, Ruby, Lucien) are little more than onlookers as this tale, once the chase is on, focuses almost entirely on Longmire and he straddles the fence between the Beyond Country and reality.

I was left with the feeling that if someone randomly picked up this book at the library, they might not come back because this really was a dark tale that got darker with each passing page. And that would be a shame. For those who’ve read this series from the beginning, this is a stellar character study of survival with little of the camaraderie that makes this series so infectiously readable and entertaining. By all means, I really hope you choose to read this book, but do so only after you’ve developed a bit of a relationship with this engaging cast that live on the high prairie. And make sure you dress warm when you read this one as the descriptions of the weather and the Wilderness will chill you right down to your marrow. 

East Coast Don

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

David Copperfield is thought to be Charles Dickens’ personal favorite of his works as it draws from so many of his own experiences.  The story tells about the life of an impoverished child, David Copperfield, who grows up in and around London in the 19th century and against much adversity develops into a successful novelist. 

David is born fatherless and his mother remarries when he is a young boy.  His stepfather, Mr. Murdstone is abusive and sends him off to boarding school.  Here he meets two of his life-long friends, Tommy Traddles and James Steerforth.  While away at school, David’s mother dies and Murdstone pulls David out of school and puts him to work in his factory.  He rents a room from the Micawber family who also become life-long allies.  Copperfield escapes the life of child labor and seeks out his only living relative, Aunt Betsy Trottwood.  She recues him from his stepfather and enrolls him in school in Canterbury.  Here he is housed by Aunt Betsy’s trusted man of business, Mr. Wickfield and his daughter, Agnes and meets Wickfield’s deceitful employee, Uriah Heep.  He loves Agnes as a sister and she proves to be a valuable confidant.  After completing his schooling, David begins legal training under Mr. Spenlow and falls in love with Spenlow’s daughter, Dora. David is bored with legal work and turns to his passion, writing.  His writing skill soon allows him to earn a living as an author.

Spenlow disapproves of David dating his daughter but after the lawyer’s untimely death, David and Dora marry.  Dora turns out to be childish and petty, not well suited to David’s intellect.  But he loves her anyway and they try to start a family.  Weakened by a miscarriage, Dora dies.

Meanwhile, Uriah Heep weasels his way into a partnership with Mr. Wickfield and hires Mr. Micawber as a clerk.  Heep intends to marry Agnes but she sees through him and is repulsed.  Micawber is distraught by Heep’s fraudulent dealings and conspires with David and Traddles to expose Heep.  While traveling through Europe working at his writing and mourning his loss of Dora, David discovers his true love.

I don’t know what to say about a classic that has not already been said.  The writing style is eloquent and is as much a part of the experience as the story itself.  A great diversion from my usual genre.