Monday, April 21, 2014

Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid

This is a nonfiction work which was suggested to me by my daughter, Jenna, who is working as a writer for the International Medical Corps, an agency that is a first responder to worldwide natural disasters. Chasing Chaos: My Decade In and Out of Humanitarian Aid was written by Jessica Alexander. If you are interested in the ins and outs of international aid, as I am, then this is a must read. Alexander worked in Darfur, Rwanda, Sri Lanka and Indonesia after the tsunami, Sierra Leone following the atrocities of Liberian President Charles Taylor, and Haiti. She told about the expected horrors, the staggering loss of life, and interruption to all life-sustaining services which occurred at each site. However, the unique part of this book was the honest description of what it was like to be an aid worker on the ground while facing overwhelming human needs with inadequate resources. Alexander did not identify herself as being saintly for having pursued such work and wrote that she had gotten involved in it when she was seeking adventure. Her views were not always favorable about the various agencies who do such work, the people who are hired to do so, and Americans who wanted to be involved. What was most painful was the fact that she ended up feeling that she did not fit in anywhere. She certainly was not accepted as a member of any of the cultures where she was delivering aid, and after seeing the difficulties of life in those places, she no longer felt like she fit in with her old friends in the United States who could not appreciate the disasters she was managing. Alexander also talked about how international aid can best be delivered without creating dependencies that are impossible to break. This is a good book, definitely worth reading if you ever follow stories in the news about natural disasters in the world. Also, you might check out the website for the International Medical Corps. It is an impressive organization. (

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Keeper by John Lescroart

In The Keeper John Lescroart returns to the foundation that fosters his success. He features the original characters of his quarter century old series... Dismas Hardy, defense attorney and Abe Glitsky, now retired homicide detective plus many of their cronies in the tight knit fraternity that comprises the San Francisco legal system.
Hal Chase is a guard at San Francisco county jail.  On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving he leaves home to pick up his step brother at the airport but the flight is delayed.  When he returns four hours later his wife, Katie is missing.  By Monday morning the police decide this is a likely murder and homicide detectives visit Chase.  Hal realizes he is a suspect with a hole in his alibi and hires Dismas Hardy to represent him, against what... he isn’t sure yet.  Hardy concludes the police have stopped investigating Katie’s disappearance and he figures the best outcome would be to simply find her.  He hires his best friend, the now retired homicide detective Abe Glitsky to find Hal’s wife.  Abe fights all his cop instincts that ‘the husband did it’ and investigates as objectively as his training will allow.  He learns that Katie had been seeing a marriage counselor (coincidentally Hardy’s wife Frannie), Hal had recently ended an affair with Katie’s friend, the rich and beautiful Patti, and Hal was an alibi witness for a deputy sheriff who is a person of interest in more than one suspicious death in the county jail.  Oddly the more Abe learns, the more he believes Hal is innocent.
Katie’s body is found in the underbrush in a park near her home.  With no evidence that Hal committed the crime the grand jury is convened to point the finger of guilt his way.  Hal is arrested and put in jail, the same jail where he is employed.

Meanwhile the DA, Wes Farrell has assigned an investigator to uncover the suspected conspiracy in the county jail.  The investigator makes some significant progress but is murdered by a supposed robber before her findings are made known.  Farrell asks Glitsky to become his new investigator and with Hardy’s blessing Abe accepts the job.  By now Glitsky is obsessed… not only with clearing Hal Chase but with slamming the door on the corruption in the county jail.  Of course this makes him a threat to possibly more than one murderer.  The keeper, the book’s namesake refers to a keeper of secrets… old secrets worth killing for.

I’m a longtime fan of Lescroart but have to admit I’m sometimes disappointed when he brings in new younger characters. The Keeper is Lescroart at his best featuring cornerstone characters, Dismas Hardy and Abe Glitsky.  While fans require no further character development for this well-defined duo, we get a deeper look at Abe with his handling of retirement and concern for his young family.  But mostly we get to share that adrenaline rush from his obsession as he closes in on his prey.  This old dog can still sniff out the rotten smell of deceit and learn some new tricks along the way.  Let’s hope the author sees it that way too and creates the next Hardy-Glitsky adventure.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry

Vanishing Act by Thomas Perry is the first of seven novels about the protagonist, Jane Whitefield. (I previously unfavorably reviewed the book he co-wrote with Clive Cussler called “The Tombs.”) It’s unusual for my wife’s book groups to read a crime novel, so that’s where the lukewarm recommendation came from for this book. Whitefield is a Seneca Indian who moves easily in and out of Indian circles, and her cause in life is to help people drop off the grid. She’s adept at making virile men look inadequate, which is perhaps what this story was doing in a women’s book group. She refers to herself as “a guide,” and in an understated way that is consistent with many of our favorite books which have strong male heroes, Whitefield said, “Sometimes people need help. I sometimes give it to them.”

In this novel one of the men she helped disappear was Harry Kemple, and he ended up dead, so he had not disappeared as well as Whitefield thought. Another man, John Felker, who had also sought her out to help him disappear was merely using her to find Kemple. It was Felker who took out Kemple, so then Whitefield pursued Kemple with the intent to kill him, since she knew he would be after her. The pursuit of these two took the reader into various Indian tribes, their histories, and then into the North Woods for a remarkably rugged adventure. Jane Whitefield is a combination of Steve Hamilton’s Alex McKnight and C.J. Box’s Joe Pickett. That is high praise to be linked to those two authors.

My response to this is better than just lukewarm, but I’m not ready to elevate Perry to power rotation status. I’ll read the second book in the series at some point, but at the moment, my reading queue is long, so I’ll dive into that first before I work my way back to Perry’s Ms. Whitefield.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

After Shock: A Novella (Lucy Guardino FBI Thrillers)

After Shock is a novella, considered by the author, C.J. Lyons, to be the 3.5 novel in the series about Lucy Guardino, an FBI agent. It’s not a good sign when the author is barely a few pages into the plot and character development when this reader starts thinking “Give me a break.” I thought the writing, plot, and characters were well beneath the standards that the reviewers in this blog expect. I’m surprised I finished it, and did so only because I had an abundance of time and it was really short. I have no interest in picking up other novels by this author. It was one of the cheap reads on Amazon, so I got what I paid for. I won’t spend any time commenting about the details – enough said.

The Accident by Chris Pavone

The Accident is Chris Pavone’s second novel, the first being The Expats for which he won an Edgar Award.  This second thriller gives an insider’s look at big time publishing and corruption in big business, politics, and the CIA all premised around the pending publishing of an unauthorized biography.  The subject of the biography is media mogul Charlie Wolfe who has aspirations for public office and secrets worth killing for.

The biography contains accusations that Wolfe had accidently killed a young coed when he was in college and then with the help of his father (then deputy CIA director) covered up the crime. David Miller, Wolfe's best friend and later business partner witnessed the crime and fostered the cover-up. Wolfe goes on to build a hugely successful news network at times covertly altering world events for exclusive news value. Now decades later, Miller has found his conscience and is exposing Wolfe’s criminal activity to the world in this telling book.  To avoid criminal charges himself and the wrath of Wolfe and his co-conspirators, Miller fakes a terminal illness then his own death and goes into hiding to author his book anonymously. He then releases it for publishing through Isabel Reed, a New York literary agent.

Isabel Reed receives the mysterious manuscript and distributes it to a few of her cronies in the publishing world. That list includes her assistant Alexus, publisher friend Jeff Fielder and movie agent Camille.  With the conventional publishing business in a state of decline, the right manuscript could bolster careers for a lucky few.

After an all-night read Isabel realizes the explosive nature of the book.  Not only would Charlie Wolfe’s career plans be ruined but politicians and CIA insiders would be investigated for their sinister roles in world political events.  Clearly Wolfe and his rouge CIA insiders would kill to keep this story under wraps.  So not only is Isabel’s life in danger but also everyone to whom she had distributed manuscript copies the previous day.
Isabel’s assistant, Alexus is found murdered in her apartment, the copied manuscript missing.  Isabel quickly goes into hiding collecting Jeff as she flees.  Little did she know Wolfe had anticipated his partner’s rebellion… even Isabel’s and Jeff’s involvement… so Isabel’s survival depends on her wits.

There is a lot right with The Accident.  It has all the elements of a great mystery/ thriller.  A high stakes game with deception at its core, Pavone creates the mystery then meters out the key info with plenty of thrills and intrigue on route to a satisfying conclusion.  However, each chapter is told from the perspective of a different person and many times the author fails to identify that person… interesting oversight from an author who was once an editor himself.  A couple times I was on page two of the chapter before I figured out which character was narrating.  This makes for a very confusing journey, particularly if you don’t read it in one sitting.  Nonetheless, I think this new author holds great promise… just still a little rough around the edges.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Devil's Punchbowl by Greg Iles

This was my first Greg Iles novel, suggested by friend Kirk Michie, and it’s the first Iles book reviewed in the blog. I chose The Devil’s Punchbowl, his 13th of 16 novels, published in 2009. The protagonist Penn Cage is an author/lawyer/politician, and the action takes place in Natchez, Mississippi. Penn has become the first term mayor of Natchez with dreams of truly integrating and improving the public educational system, but he has become discouraged because the segregation forces that kept ethnic groups separate are still alive and powerful.

Meanwhile, the town is economically dying, only saved recently by the legalization of gambling in the state. But, not all people are just satisfied with the legal games on the casino floors. More exotic action like secret dog fighting brings big international interest, and the gamblers that want that action also expect to have all of their needs met. Iles reveals the history of dog fighting and it’s current underground ugly status in most places in the world. In Natchez, Penn’s childhood friend, Tim Jessup did not quite have the progressive life that Penn experienced. Although they were both the sons of doctors, attended the best schools, and grew up with privileges, Tim took a rebellious and deviant direction. As he got his life together, he ended up dealing cards at the biggest of the casinos, The Magnolia Queen, which of course is backed by the most questionable of international resources. He discovered that bad schemes were happening, and feeling guilty about the way he had led his earlier life, decide to try to bring the bad guys down, only to lose his life in the process.

The plot is complex, and the story is well written, vivid, engaging, and at times, horrifying. Penn’s ex-love Caitlin Masters has returned unexpectedly, and she becomes a prime part of the story. The book is not short, nearly 600 pages, but that gave the author time to flesh out his characters in detail and for the subplots to coalesce. There were only a few moments when I felt that the story was too long. I’m impressed with Iles and I plan to read more of his works. We should have know about this author before now – so thanks to Kirk for the recommendation.

The Expats by Chris Pavone

(I need to review our own content from time to time. when I looked at my post on our site's design, I thought it look familiar. Turns out Midwest Dave beat me to it. No matter, check out both reviews for two takes on the same story.)

He does something in computer security. She works for the State Department. They live a comfortable, but check-to-check life in Washington, DC with their 2 preschool sons. When Dexter gets a job offer in Luxembourg to crank up electronic security for a bank chain (for big bucks), they see it as a chance to get ahead while living the expat life in Europe.

That means Kate has to give up her decent job and occasional travel and, with two kids in tow, join a small band of expat American women whose husbands all do something in finance, who’ve given up a nanny in the US to become housewives in a strange country.

When you’ve had a good job and now scrub toilets, take kids to/from school, have coffee with the other moms, well, life is pretty boring. Dexter gets to travel around Europe to various bank branches and the tasks he agreed to do become more and more demanding of his time. Kate really doesn’t know what Dexter does. He tries to explain, but it’s just too complex to explain to a novice such as Kate.

A new couple joins this expat community. Bill and Julia. Childless. He, like the rest of the husbands, is also in finance. Bill and Dexter become tennis buds, so Julia and Kate are sort of expected to become friends by default. Julia is a whinny thing from Chicago (and Kate hates Chicago). Kate thinks Julia sort of follows her around because she’s too insecure to go out on her own.

But Kate’s bored mind starts to think that maybe Julia is following her and that creeps Kate out. So she does a little digging on her own and her mind starts to play wild ‘what if’, ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’ games as she tries to put together some back story for this mouse.

Because that’s what Kate does . . . or did. See, for 15 years, Kate didn’t work for the State Department. She was a case officer for the CIA, mostly in central and South America. She learned from the best how to lie, cheat, steal, manipulate, and, yes, even kill. More than once. When she married Dexter and had kids, she shifted to an analyst position. Still in the game, but on the sidelines. And what she learns is that not only are Bill and Julia hiding secrets, so is Dexter . . . and herself, too.

Secrets about their individual and collective past, a Serbian colonel, a Mexican thug/politician, a Dutch prostitute, a really touchy Russian General, and a missing cache of 50 million Euros. Amidst the boring day-to-day minutiae of an expat housewife, Kate manages to revive some old skills, both psychological and physical, to unravel what the hell is going on, without telling Dexter just who she really is, or was.

And that’s what The Expats is all about - what do you do when you (both) withheld secrets from the one you should trust implicitly. For probably 85% of the book, Pavone drags us through Kate’s daily doldrums and her hyperactive imagination. That he keeps you reading page after page after page of daily expat life is quite remarkable. With each tiny and insignificant reveal, we get sucked just that much deeper into Kate’s paranoia. And when we get to the BIG REVEAL at the end, the layers of the onion get peeled back one by one and we learn that we really did have all the information needed, but those damn secrets just kept getting in the way (shades of The Usual Suspects?). 

This 2012 book is Pavone’s first novel and when a newcomer’s first book hits the NY Times best seller list, you can bet it’s had some pretty good word-of-mouth support. The last initial effort in the spy thriller genre I read that grabbed me this strongly was Alex Berensen’s The Faithful Spy. The complex web of lies and manipulations reminded me of Olen Steinhauer – two authors in my power rotation. High praise indeed. So, now I sit, eagerly awaiting for my name to rise to the top of the wait list for his next, The Accident.