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Monday, October 24, 2016

Compromised by James Scarantino

New Mexico is a confusing mix of Latinos and Spaniards each with their own view of how history led to what now exists in the state.

Denise Aragon was in high school when her boyfriend was killed trying to protect her from being raped. Never able to let go of that day, Denise wants to do nothing other than put the bad guys away. She's a Santa Fe detective. No one will confuse Denise with a runway model. Short and stocky, she fills out her uniform with muscles hardened in the gym. A 2-legged cinder block. Wears her hair more 'high and tight' than feminine. That way a perp has nothing to grab should an arrest get physical. As good with a sidearm as she is with her fists. And tenacious as a pit bull.

Lily Montclair wants to go into wit sec. A former model, she's an investigator of sorts for a Santa Fe criminal defense lawyer, Marcy Thornton. But her tasks extend to finding girls for Thornton and the Honorable Judy Diaz of the First Judicial District Court. When Diaz helps ensure that one of Thornton's cases goes the right way, they celebrate. With girls that Lily has found.

The latest, Andrea, is found in a dumpster belonging to E. Benny Silva Enterprises. They do waste removal, recycling, port-a-johns, and a couple services even less engaging.

And it's not just cops who are trying to find dirt of Thornton and Diaz. Walter Fager, a defrocked attorney, wants nothing more than to tie up those two who destroyed his career. So much so that he purposefully gets tossed in the clink for contempt so he can find others whose case was jerked around by Diaz/Thornton.

Det. Aragon and others in the SFPD, plus the FBI, know that Thornton/Diaz are dirty. There is this little problem with evidence. They need DNA, a video, text messages, fingerprints, something that'll tie them to a long series of questionable cases and verdicts.

Things get pretty convoluted. Lots of hypotheses, but no way to find out who is at the center of a crisscrossed web. Could be Star Salazar, Andrea's pimp of sorts, or Thornton and/or Diaz, or Benny Silva or his relatives, or a virtual reality web designer, or Walter Fager. Someone's pulling the strings and each day brings a new clue that shifts where the various players sit in this maze of possibles.

Scarantino is an east coast defense attorney who moved to New Mexico after a vacation. Also has been an investigative reporter. Now he writes, exposes criminal behavior, does a radio show and news broadcasts. This is his second Denise Aragon novel. He mixes local history and crime into a slurry that only his fireplug of a detective can figure out. The complexity of this plot makes the book a bit longer than most cop/lawyer procedurals, but it's worth the effort. Aragon is a detective to be reckoned with in the future.

Available February 8, 2017.

East Coast Don

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Her Nightly Embrace by Adi Tantimedh

Ravi Singh was born and raised in London after his parents emigrated from India.  He studied religion in college and for a short time taught high school.  To help his mother pay her gambling debts to a neighborhood shyster, Ravi takes an unconventional but good paying job with Golden Sentinels Private Investigations Agency.  His coworkers are an eclectic group of social misfits that specialize in discreetly resolving embarrassing issues for wealthy clients.  Ravi, it seems, has a rare talent for investigative work and is assigned cases such as finding a ghost having sex with a high ranking politician, helping a runaway bride, and outing an internet bully who attacks a famous author.  

While Ravi excels in this profession, the stress of the job causes him to image Hindu gods are observing him like a conscience editorializing his activities.  The more intense the case, the more these gods appear to him.  In one case, the client is an investment banker whose coworkers are being murdered.  As he digs into the banking firm, he finds his employer has connections not only to the bank but to an international spy network.  Golden Sentinels may actually be a contractor to the CIA.

So apparently, this book is the precursor to a TV series.  The collection of four interrelated short stories is the basis for the first four episodes.  While the book is entertaining, I found it a little light on substance.  Plus the fantasy angle just doesn’t appeal to me.  I feel like this genre is targeted more toward Millennials than Baby Boomers… just not my thing.  That said, I would anticipate a successful TV series from this book.  Ravi, the main character is intriguing and charismatic.  The plots are off beat and compelling… just a little too ‘Supernatural’ for my taste.

Thanks to Simon and Schuster for the advance copy. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Deep Cover Jack

There are seven books called “The Hunt for Jack Reacher series” written by Diane Capri and authorized by Lee Child, the author of the very popular Jack Reacher series. The seventh is Deep Cover Jack. Special Under orders from “The Boss,” Agents Kim Otto and Carlos Gaspar have spent the last 23 days on an off-the-books search for Reacher when they are sent by their boss with minimal explanation to take a look at a remote property on the coast of Maine. It’s the dead of winter, so the weather was big factor in this story. Two female agents have gone missing in the area. Meanwhile, “The Diplomat” Viktor Sokol, who is a Russian embassy attaché, has something nefarious planned regarding a highly effective and essentially untraceable weapon that he wants to sell to terrorists anywhere in the world.

The good news about this story is that it is a fast and easy read. It could entertain you on a 2-hour flight somewhere, but it is not great literature. Reacher’s involvement in the story is peripheral and hinted at, but since he has completely gone off the grid, has had his identity erased from all records, and wants to remain hidden, no one, not even “The Boss” knows of his involvement in all of these events. And, at the end of the story, while the story about Sokol and the terrorist weapon has been resolved, we are no closer to knowing anything about Reacher. I am not motivated to look further into this series, and I hope Mr. Child got paid handsomely to authorize and endorse Deep these books.

The Last Child

Johnny Merrimon is a 13-year-old who has been living in hell, and the author’s opening paragraph is intense: “Johnny learned early. If somebody asked him why he was so different, why he held himself so still and why his eyes seemed to swallow light, that’s what he’d tell them. He learned early that there was no safe place, not the backyard or the playground, not the front porch or the quiet road that grazed the edge of town. No safe place, and no one to protect you.” John Hart wrote, “Childhood was illusion.” Alyssa, Johnny’s twin sister, had gone missing a year earlier. Their father, Spencer, had been late to pick her up after school, and someone scooped her up when she attempted to get home on her own. There was no clue as to what might have happened to her, and even Detective Hunt, who was obsessed with the case, could make no headway into Alyssa’s disappearance. Johnny’s mother, Katherine, was the most beautiful woman in this backwoods North Carolina township, and she would not let her husband forget his mistake. Hart wrote, “Too much pain. Too much guilt.” Two weeks after Alyssa’s disappearance, Spencer just left – so Johnny’s loss was two-fold. And then it became three-fold when his mother sank into depression and drug abuse.

Hart led the reader through a series of great characters in this mystery. Ken was the richest guy in town who took advantage of the beautiful Katherine’s depression and addiction. He was abusive to her and Johnny. In the face of his mother’s deterioration, Social Services was circling closer and closer to removing Johnny from his home. Detective Hunt’s obsession led to the dissolution of his own marriage and alienation from his own troubled teenage son, Allen.

Then another girl, Tiffany Shore went missing. As Johnny continued his own search for clues about his sister, he witnessed the death of David Wilson as he plunged off a bridge at the end of a crash, his motorcycle having been knocked over by a pursuing car. His last words to Johnny were that he had found the missing girl, but he died before he could say if it was Alyssa or Tiffany. And what about Johnny’s best friend Jack and his star baseball playing brother, Gerald. And Levi Freemantle, the giant of a man who wondered about in the backwoods talking to himself and god.

Hart tied this altogether in believable and captivating way. It’s dark, perhaps as best captured by Detective Hunt’s longtime partner, John Yoakum who said, “I expect the worst and the worst rarely disappoints.” Each of us at MRB has reviewed a Hart book, and we’ve each come away with respect for his work, but also somewhat shaken by the depth and power of his writing.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Shadow of Doubt by William J. Coughlin

Charlie Sloan was once a hot shot Detroit criminal defense attorney.  He was the go to guy that only the wealthy could afford when faced with a criminal charge.  Then due to his ever increasing alcohol consumption, Charlie lost his practice, his wife, and his net worth.  With his legal license in jeopardy, he moved to the small middle class community of Pickeral Point where he stopped drinking, joined AA, and performed enough mundane legal tasks to earn a living.
Then he gets the break he’s not sure he wants.  An ex-girlfriend from years ago, Robin Harwell hires him to represent her stepdaughter, Angel.  Angel has been arrested for murdering her father, the second generation owner of a recreational motorboat company.  The nineteen year old Angel had both motive and opportunity to kill her father.  She still lived in her father’s home, had numerous arguments with him, and confesses to stabbing him after a lengthy high pressure interrogation by police.  Charlie gets the charges reduced against Angel and gets her released on bail but figures his client will find out about his alcoholism and find a new attorney before the trial.
But Angel likes Charlie and demands he continue to represent her.  So he’s back in the life of the high profile defense attorney.  He needs to hire psychologists, investigators, and secretarial staff as soon as possible and begin to interview witnesses.  He quickly finds his courtroom skills are still intact but the emotional stress of the trial has him thinking about drinking way too often.  The judge, the DA opposing him, and the media all know his history and expect him to fail.  If he can resist the temptation to drink, he has a chance to rebuild his career and his life.  That is if Angel’s lies and deep family secrets don’t derail his chances.

Shadow of Doubt was written in the early 1990’s and I remember reading it when it was released.  This was the era of legal thrillers with Scott Turow and John Grisham leading the way to popularize the genre.  Coughlin having served twenty years as a judge, holds his own with these literary giants.  His courtroom knowledge adds authenticity.  His protagonist, the flawed Charlie Sloan, is genuine and likable.  Set in the era before modern forensics, cell phones, and word processors, there is a nostalgic feel to his writing that adds to the experience.  I was fascinated with Coughlin back in the day and enjoyed revisiting his work… a true master of his craft.  

Monday, October 10, 2016

Oath of Honor by Matthew Betley

It's two years since the debacle in Iraq. Logan West and John Quick, former Force Recon Marines, are now part of an FBI task force. They are tasked to an obscure Aleutian to run down a rumored Russian black ops team hunting for some highly classified US technology. This information-finding mission quickly degenerates to a shoot out aboard the Arctic Glide research ship anchored at Amaknak Island. But the technology was successfully grabbed. 

West and Quick track the theft to a village in Spain, again arriving too late. The technology has been secreted to a North Korean ship steaming across the Med toward Africa. With help from Spain and the CIA's Madrid station (in particular, Cole Matthews), they intercept, board, and search.

Wrong again. The ship was a red herring. Bad intel. Or was it good intel for the other side? The team returns to Spain only to get the correct intel that the device in question is on a Gulfstream whose flight plan is for Sudan. 

The technology in question is called ONERING (after Lord of the Rings). It controls an American space-based weapon that can target land-based targets. And it's just been activated. It damages a Chinese-Sudanese oil field on the border of Sudan and (soon to be) independent South Sudan.

About the same time, a small terrorist ring attacks the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. The FBI quickly learns the the attack is a diversion away from the real target, a rare elements mining operation in the nearby Nevada desert.

When West and Quick arrive in Sudan, they are quickly targeted, but not by the Sudanese. These commandos are highly trained Chinese. West and Matthews are taken captive and sent to an off the books prison holding mostly Darfur rebels. The Black Hole is a lawless compound that, mostly, entertains its captives with life or death battles in a boxing ring.

And just how do the leaders of this plan know so much about West, Quick, and Matthews?

While Quick and the CIAs Sudan station rush to find West and Matthews, the Chinese and Sudanese who are complicit in this attempt to rush the US and China in to a conflict find themselves in the crosshairs of LEGION - one of the CIAs most lethal and entirely autonomous assassins. Quick and LEGION join forces with SEAL Team 6 to raid the hidden site of Chinese commandos, obtain ONERING, rescue West and Matthews, and find the leaders of this global conspiracy.

Former Marine Betley is setting up a series of (he says 5 books) that pits the globalists vs. the nationalists. Someone who sits at the 'new world order' table is trying to get the superpowers at each other's throats. Once they've fought to a stalemate, the 'globalists' will swoop in with global control and end all this ridiculous nationalist control. It's going to happen eventually anyway.

The current President offers West, Quick, Matthews, and the LEGION asset carte blanche to deal find out just who has the cash, support, and inclination to manipulate current world leaders into a global conspiracy to bring about this new world order.  Call them ARES.

While the title of Oath of Honor may sound like a bad Steven Segal movie, it's far from that. Bentley shines in his presentation of every aspect, good and bad, of a firefight. The detail, the tools, the skills, the horror. He races West and Quick from Alaska to Spain to the Med to various locales in Sudan (with the FBI in Vegas) finally back to DC in pulse pounding fashion.

This is one kick ass book, folks. If I was required to cite something weak, it might be that some (and only some, I might add) of the dialogue seems a little forced. But that's hardly a reason to pass on this. On the heels of his first novel, Overwatch, Betley has skillfully provided we thriller readers with another winner. Thriller readers should accept him as quickly as they accepted Alex Berenson, another relative new author into the fold.

And mercifully, he's slyly advised us on five more West/Quick thrillers. Can't wait. Assuming #3 is as good as #s 1 and 2, Betley will soon join my power rotation.

As always, thanks to the good folks at Emily Bestler Books/Atria Books (imprints of Simon and Schuster) for the advance copy for review. As I've said in some earlier reviews, you should trust in Emily Bestler Books. If published by them, it's a safe bet it'll be a winner. I've yet to be disappointed.

Available March 14, 2017.  Put in your orders now.


Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Disruption by Chuck Barrett

Assuming I beat my compadres to the 'send' button today . . . this review represents a bonafide MRB milestone:

Review #1000.

We rejoin Jake Pendleton and his partner, the former AISE agent (Italy's External Intelligence and Security Agency) Francesca Catanzaro who both continue to work for Commonwealth Consultants, a for-hire espionage company that has (mostly) a single client - President Rebecca K. Rudd. 

They are tracking Boris, a hacker of some note. He's a central player in the hack to beat all hacks. 

The whole operation is the brainchild of Qasem Kazemi,
a former General in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard who now heads up Tarh Andishan, a cadre of expert hacker-terrorists. His plan is to disrupt (hence the title) a whole bucketload of everyday operations like airports, trains, cell phones, electrical grids, utilities, military and civilian satellites, etc. in order to force the world's attention away from his prime target . . . being a deranged Iranian, you should be able to guess the object of his obsession.

The plan in highly compartmentalized. A slew of world class hackers each has a task. Boris's task is to upload a set of commands, which he is to receive from another hacker that known as The Jew, that will spread via satellite across most of the connected world and trigger other hacks to spread widespread confusion and panic especially Europe, the Far East, and North America.

All is in play and ready for a midnight Halloween execution order from Kazemi. But The Jew has figured out much of what is to transpire and holds the final coding that is to screw with the satellites. Knowing what could happen, The Jew inserts a number of bread crumbs in his code that should lead an expert hacker to the solution and stop the Disruption from being fully executed.

Kazemi captures The Jew and tortures him beyond belief, but The Jew holds out knowing he is a dead man and is willing to die before giving up all the codes, releasing just enough of the codes for some expert out there to decipher his embedded clues . . . and that's turns out to be Commonwealth's own genius hacker George Fontaine.

Jake and Francesca track Boris through DC, but lose him. Just as they lose him, a Commonwealth research lab in Belgium goes up in flames sending both to Europe to chase down a myriad of crisscrossing clues to the whereabouts of Kazemi. Jake and Francesca race through Venice, Rome, Florence, Vienna, Baden-Baden, plus a couple transatlantic crossings, trying to close in on Kazemi while also attempting to find out why the AISE always seems to be right behind them.

Were I the type who awarded stars for books, I'd probably give this 3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars. Of all the characters, my favorite is Commonwealth's own hacker, Fontaine. And while the story is well plotted, paced, and extremely well written, Jake and Francesca are just a touch toooooo good at what they do to be entirely believable. A quality beach read (and seeing as how I read much of this at the beach last week, I think I'm qualified to make such a statement).

One other thing noteworthy in this story is Barrett's use of reasonably current events. Apparently Tarh  Andishan is a real group of Muslim hackers,  the ongoing upheavals in Iran, North Korea-China tensions, ISIS, that Air Malaysia flight that disappeared over the Indian Ocean a couple years ago, and a whole bunch more. Including current events, particularly those that so far have defied explanation (that lost plane plays a huge role in the lead up to events) helps drive the possibility of what's described awfully close to home.

Close enough to start some readers to start building dwellings off the grid and keep a go bag at the ready?

Available October 26, 2016.