Old mysteries and thrillers gathering dust and adding to your clutter? Donate them to the Burrito Boyz and they'll distribute to the homeless of San Diego.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Heist by Daniel Silva

The Heist is Daniel Silva’s 14th book in the Gabriel Allon series, all of which I’ve savored, some more than once. In this book, Allon is doing another art restoration in Venice, perhaps the last one of his career until he moves back to Israel to assume command of the Office, Israel’s foreign intelligence service. He’s avoided becoming the boss of the organization for man years, but its finally time. But, as has happened so often in the past, his restoration was interrupted, this time when he was seduced into an attempt to find a stolen masterpiece, Caravaggio’s Nativity. The reader is lead into the mysterious world of art theft and the real value of such. Necessarily, Silva also leads us into the world of international banking and the hidden movement of great wealth among banks. But, Silva has always been timely with his stories, and this one takes us to Syria and the attempts of the Bashar Assad, the President of Syria, to loot his country of all value while resisting all attempts to give up his authority. Silva referred to Assad as the Butcher of Damascus, or butcher boy in tribute to Assad’s father who was equally brutality to his own people. Silva likens Assad’s actions to those of Putin in Russia, the only regime that stood in support of Assad’s massacre of his own countrymen, and it was Putin’s insatiable quest for money that was behind the support. This story grows from an attempt to recover a lost painting to an attempt to grab most of Assad’s wealth to an attempt to save the life of a woman that Allon had used to accomplish both of his goals.

Silva is the master the international thriller. This newest book was just released this week, and if you’ve read all of his other books, put down what you’re reading now (just as I did) and jump into this one. If you haven’t read Silva, then start with The Kill Artist and know that you’ve a great adventure ahead. Since I've read them all and Silva publishes just one book a year, now I have to painfully wait until next July for the next installment. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Wicked Flee by Matthew Iden

The Wicked Flee is Matthew Iden’s fifth in his Marty Singer series.  Singer is an ex-DC cop who retired to fight his cancer.  Now a PI he uses his skill set, contacts within law enforcement and new found empathy to solve other people’s problems.

Singer’s friend and current DC police officer, Chuck Rhee pounds on Singer’s door in the middle of the night.  Rhee’s teenage sister, Lucy has disappeared and he fears she may have been abducted.  He can’t wait for the bureaucracy within law enforcement to help him find her… she could already be out of local jurisdiction.  Together Marty and Chuck roust Lucy’s former boyfriend and his pals.  After busting some heads they learn Lucy is with a dangerous dude known for sex trafficking.  Without his name they begin searching for and rousting the sex offender’s known accomplices.
Meanwhile, rookie Maryland State Trooper, Sarah Hayesworth abducts a perpetrator disposing of a young woman’s body… a sex for hire gig gone wrong.  She knows the perp can lead her to the prostitution ring but her boss makes her turn over the case to the local county sheriff.  Haunted by the prospect of young women being abused, she decides to work the case on her own time.  Her investigation leads her to a rundown hotel used to house the hookers.  In the lobby she finds a young DC cop and an aging PI ‘pressuring’ the night clerk for information.  After learning the likely whereabouts of Lucy and her abductor, the three join forces in a sprint to the finish to save Lucy’s life.

The Wicked Flee is the fastest paced Marty Singer novel to date.  In fact the character of Marty is not expanded upon at all… you have to know him from previous works.  Instead the hook here is the chase itself… will the heroes get there in time to save the day?  I’m impressed by Iden’s skill to keep that suspense in play to the end… a true page turner.  What I do miss from Iden’s earlier work is the vulnerability factor in Marty Singer… that thing that makes him appealing and significant.  Maybe we’ll get more of that next time… I’m in either way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo’s Calling is Robert Galbraith’s (aka J.K. Rowling’s) first mystery novel and introduces two unlikely heroes... London PI Cormoran Strike and his temporary secretary, Robin Ellacott.  Strike is having a run of bad luck.  Born to a groupie mother and a rock star father who will not acknowledge him, Strike grows up a transient in poverty and joins the Army as early as possible.  He becomes a successful MP in Afghanistan but has his leg blown off up to his mid-calf and is forced to retire sooner than he would like.  He reluctantly returns to London and becomes a PI and moves in with his girlfriend.  Both his business and his relationship flounder but his pride refuses to let him blame his upbringing or his prosthetic leg.  Strike breaks up with his girlfriend and is moving into his office the same day his new temporary secretary, Robin arrives for her first day at work.  Robin immediately recognizes Strike’s pride and need for privacy which fosters an arm’s length connection between the two.

Just as Strike is contemplating closing the doors on his PI business, John Bristow arrives at his office in need of his services.  John’s adopted sister, the legendary supermodel, Lula Landry fell to her death some months earlier.  The police have ruled her death a suicide but John cannot accept that and hires Strike to investigate further.  His investigation draws him into Cuckoo’s (Miss Landry’s nickname) private life including dysfunctional family members, excessive life styled celebrities, drug rehabbed acquaintances, security providers, and news media types all hustling for something at Cuckoo’s expense.

Strike’s skilled interview style and his meticulous attention to detail combined with Robin’s curiosity and sensibility coalesce to sift through a barrage of characters with some motive to end Cuckoo’s life.  Only when the killer shows his willingness to kill again is Strike able to close in… but at what cost?

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a deep dive into the character of Cormoran Strike.  The author delves deep… perhaps deeper than we need to go… into his history letting us know who he is and what caused him to get here.  We can’t help but empathize and forgive his indiscretions as well as respect his abilities and perseverance.  Soon we begin cheering for him… hoping for the best outcome… all signs of a worthy protagonist.  I look forward to more of Cormoran Strike.  Hopefully next time we can forego some of the dry detailed character development of which we are now well informed.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Sparrow Falls

At menreadingbooks.blogspot.com, we’ve already done 667 book reviews, but until now, not one by the prolific Wilbur Smith. Mostly, we read crime novels and thrillers, but historical fiction is also one of our favorite genres. This book was suggested by Karen A. Chase, an author of historical fiction, and she has promised to write the formal review of the book in the very near future, so stay tuned for that. She said this was her first Wilbur Smith novel and it was the book which set her on the course of writing in the same genre. A Sparrow Falls is the third book in an eight-book series about the Courtneys. This one starts at the end of WWI and extends through the 1920s, after the war, the story moves from France to South Africa. Smith writes with remarkable prose, and his characters are alive and real. This 630-page book kept me in it’s grip and I’m immediately moving Smith into my power rotation. I’m glad I don’t have to kick anyone off my island of favorite authors because it is starting to get crowded – and Smith belongs there. He’s written 33 novels, so shame on us for not getting to him any sooner. I’ve already acquired the first novel in this series, “When the Lion Feeds,” and now I’ll take on Smith in the order that he wrote his books. This is wonderful literature. Ms. Chase has led me into a treasure of novels. Thank you, and I await your review.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Curtain by Patrick Ord

You don't know Henry Maddox, but he knows you.

Dr. Maddox is just a marketing prof at Berkeley who has managed to apply what he knows into a most lucrative consulting business. Companies hire him to show them how to leverage their product or service into megabucks and his clients regularly populate the Fortune 500 list. Henry presents any number of erudite theories of economics and marketing to a company's management team, telling them that 'households' may be a key unit of measurement for a business, but also how 'fragmentation' of the household can extend their market to be so specialized that they can target campaigns that  manipulate consumers into opening up their wallets. Within any 'household' are the husband/father/AlphaMale/etc.; there are 3 markets right there if targeted right. How about the wife/mom/soccer mom/sex kitten/cook, etc. Then there are the teenage boys/girls/jock/nerd/outcast/goth/yadda yadda yadda. And if the company can get into a divorced family, well, that doubles everything. And he hasn't even gotten to Cross Promotion and Conglomerate Propagandizing. Ah, but the real golden goose is to find out which users could be swayed to join online gambling and pornography sites - that's some real money.

All the company has to do is learn how to gather, collect, analyze, and interpret personal data that the wishy washy consumer is all too willing to turn over in order to get a pass into the next level of some video game. Then,  it's a simply click or two to put a cookie on every user's computer to tell the company every website visited, all their social network contacts, their address book, their spending habits, everything.

And that's where the fun begins. At least as defined by Henry Maddox. Sure he charges the company an arm and a leg, but he also negotiates the rights to access said company's data on their users making his predictive models all the more powerful that he'll use with the next company to drive their profits even higher. And all Henry really wants is their data . . . and a check.

Henry's world gets turned upside down when Laroy Eldon, head of a pro-family group, makes a play to try and show Henry the error in his way. That what he does in driving wedges into families and society that just keep getting deeper and deeper. People aren't products that can be moved around to meet some real or manufactured demands.  His longtime business partner threatens to quit because she sees the value in Laroy's arguments. And Pressley, an impressionable student, wants to volunteer at Henry's company until her enthusiasm to expose a predatory gaming company puts her into a mess because that company is one of Maddox's clients.

Well, if all that makes this book sound like a God awful dry discourse into economic theory, consumerism, and mass marketing, you'd be denying yourself an excellent peak behind the curtain of how mega business tries to pry our hard earned money out of our pocket. In an era where privacy protection is a top policy issue, consumers are more than willing to hand over, willingly, all kinds of information simply by clicking a mouse on a link that targets a weakness predicted by Henry Maddox's models.

This really should be required reading for anyone who goes online for ANYTHING so everyone can see just how pervasive this data gathering has become. For a first-time author, Ord has told us way more than corporate America ever wanted us to know. Ok, the writing may be a bit amateurish and the dialogue a touch too clean and perfect while we end up feeling like we are being lectured to, but in this form of entertainment, how else are you going to get this kind of info across to a reader? This is a really fast read and what you learn (what? learn from a novel? yes . . . learn) will stay with you and should resonate every time you click on a hyperlink.

East Coast Don

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Field of Prey by John Sanford

Field of Prey is the latest in a long standing series by John Sanford featuring favored protagonist, Lucas Davenport.  Yet it is my first venture into this series and left me with a feeling of ‘Wow, what have I been missing!’  Too often authors lose their edge when a series spans several decades but I found this installment relevant and current. I even felt connected to it personally on more than one front.

Lucas Davenport is a seasoned investigator for the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA).  His exemplary record should have propelled him past his current station as lead investigator but his independence and preference for front line action have caused him to turn down many promotions.  While his record in solving high profile cases affords him a personal relationship with the governor, his dislike of bureaucracy and of department politics has capped his advancement.  Davenport is independently wealthy from a software company he founded in his younger days and is married to a surgeon.  This affords him the luxury of maintaining his out of the box thinking and maverick style of investigating that has made him successful.

In Field of Prey, a cistern full of human remains is found at an old abandoned farmstead near Redwing, MN.  Forensic investigation concludes that at least fifteen bodies were in the cistern from a time frame that spans over 20 years… the latest is less than a year old.  Lucas is somewhat relieved he is not assigned to the case initially.  He knows this type of investigation will require a tedious accumulation of data by a large staff of technicians… better left to the bureaucrats.  His colleague Bob Shaffer is put in charge but Lucas follows the case as it develops.  After several weeks, Shaffer is frustrated by their lack of progress but follows a hunch and is killed, presumably by their mass murderer.  Davenport is asked to take over the investigation but declines the administrative role to enable him to independently pursue the perp.  He engages the help of Goodhue County deputy Catrin Mattsson.  Mattsson is smart and motivated and knows many of the locals.  Plus she is young, pretty, and blond all commonalities with the victims.  As Davenport closes in on the murderer, he is distracted by the shooting of one of his direct reports, Del Capslock who was working an unrelated case in Texas.  Del is also a friend and colleague so Lucas summons the governor’s private plane to jet him and Del’s wife to El Paso.  While Lucas is away, Catrin is abducted by the mass murderer in Redwing.  So the clock starts… can Lucas sift through all the clues in time to discover the killer’s identity and save Catrin’s life?  It’s all there in the data, he just has to connect the dots.

I highly recommend Field of Prey to the readers of this genre.  Sanford creates an interesting plot and rolls it out in a way where the reader connects all the dots long before the characters.  The suspense is in anticipating when the characters will discover what the reader already knows.  Plus Sanford develops likable slightly flawed characters… flawed in ways that endear them to the reader.

I personally related to this story on multiple levels.  First, from my heritage of growing up on a farm, I am familiar with old farmsteads and cisterns.  A cistern is a concrete structure just below the ground’s surface that is filled by rain water from the spouting on the house roof.  A farmstead also has a well for drinking water but that water is often hard from iron, sulfur or other elements in the ground.  The rain water is the source of soft water for bathing and washing clothes on a farm of olden days.  Having cleaned out a cistern or two in my youth, the thought of human remains in there is revolting.  Second, I can totally relate to Lucas aversion to bureaucracy and workplace politics.  In my own professional life I often found myself like Lucas focused on the task at hand rather than following established protocol.  Anyway, I loved this book and will pick a few from Sanford’s Prey series to enjoy… suggestions are welcome.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith

This is an interesting book, a bit unlike anything we’ve read primarily because it comes from a black writer who is clearly advancing a current-day theme based on reparations for slavery. He presents the pros and cons for that argument in a skillful and extreme way. The set up is similar to what Grisham wrote in The Firm where protagonist Mitch McDeere gets seduced into joining a Mafioso law firm. In this case, it’s Martin Grey who is the victim of seduction. Grey, a black man, has been practicing law for several years in New York and he has stumbled into a huge case in which he is suing over a racial discrimination matter by a huge corporation. The defendants brought in the remarkable Damon Darrell, also a black man, a seasoned lawyer who was incredible charismatic, dramatic, and rarely lost a case. Only this time, Grey prevailed.

Darrell was so impressed with Grey’s intellect and skills, that Grey was invited to join Darrell and a group of true national heavyweights in various areas. They were all black and thought they could initiate Grey into their club that was based on hatred of all Caucasians as the result of the inhumanity that their ancestors had been subjected to as slaves. Their ultra secret retreat at 40 Acres was designed to renew their African spirits and help free them from “the noise” of the white world they normally inhabited.

I won’t write more about the plot because it would give too much away. The plot and setting was outlandish, but no more so than some of the works of authors like Clive Cussler, someone who we have all enjoyed over the past years. The author, Dwayne Alexander Smith, is quite successful in leading the reader to the conclusion that hate is not the answer and being anchored in the past is an impediment to living in the present. This is Smith’s first novel although he has been a screenwriter for some time. I have mixed feelings about giving it too strong a recommendation, but Smith has certainly fleshed out a very interesting theme and story.

West Coast Don

I'll add a bit to WCDs review. While this book is, on the surface, about reparations for slavery as mentioned above, it could also be applied to most any circumstance where any oppressed race/culture across the ages gets freed and then tries to right old wrongs (e.g., Jews as far back as Egypt, Muslims during the Crusades, Native Americans, etc.). Or it could be an allegory about making a deal with the devil - in this case, the reclusive Dr. Kasim. Regardless of one's perspective, WCD's observation that this is unlike our usual fare is right on the money. I will be the first to admit that many of the books I read really don't stay with me long after I close the book and pen a review. But this is a big topic to be addressed in one book and will stay with me, for a while. 

Thanks to the good folks at Simon and Schuster for the advance copy to the MRB boys. Forty Acres went on sale on July 1, 2014.

East Coast Don