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.  

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Twice a Spy by Keith Thomson

"Twice” picks up almost right after Once a Spy ends with Drummand and Charlie Clark escaping to Europe with the goal of trying to settle in Switzerland to get some experimental treatments for Drummond’s issues with early-onset Alzheimers.

The CIA is still after the Clarks, worried that Drummond will blurt out deep cover secrets specifically those about Operation Placebo and that won’t be good.

In trying to track down remnants of Placebo, Drummond and Charlie are flown to Martinique where Drummond flips between lucidity and blank stares in the various chases and close calls to find Placebo in an underground cavern only to lose it again.

But where is Placebo headed is the next question-Europe? India? China? US? And where specifically. The CIA has their thoughts, but Charlie has other ideas.

This really in part deux for the Clarks. Thomson gradually shifts the emphasis from Drummond to Charlie as his maturing skills and instincts take center stage. Thomson has a new book coming out in 2014. Not sure if it follows Father/son Clark, but if it does, I’m sure it will be full of close calls, outrageous tradecraft, snarky comments, and fast paced, perils of Pauline action. Not a great thriller, it's sort of in it's own category. A comic thriller?. Not enough to enter the power rotation, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining. A quick read. Lots of fun. 


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Missing You by Harlan Coben

Kat Donovan is a seasoned NYPD detective whose life lacks closure on two fronts.  Eighteen years ago her father, also a NY policeman, was murdered.  A mob hit man confessed to the murder but Kat has never believed the confession was valid.  She thinks the hit man was instructed to take the fall.  At about the same time as her father’s murder, Kat’s boyfriend and love of her life, Jeff says goodbye and disappears.  Both these events have left Kat wondering for nearly half her life, what really happened.

Kat’s best friend, Stacy encourages Kat to move on by signing her up for an online dating service.  Searching for Mr. Right, Kat finds a picture of her ex-boyfriend Jeff with a different name.  She tries to connect with him but gets rejected… again.  Meanwhile back at the precinct, Brandon, a college student from Connecticut contacts her about his missing mother.  Coincidently, the mother had signed up to the same online dating service as Kat and has disappeared and transferred a large sum of money to a numbered account in a Swiss Bank.  The son approaches Kat because the local Connecticut cops could not prove criminal activity and therefore dismiss the kid.  Brandon reveals that he hacked into the dating service’s website and found Kat’s name, profile and occupation.  He also found conversations among other clients suggesting foul play.  Kat reluctantly follows the illegally attained clues but is intrigued as each clue seems to lead toward conquering the demons in her own life.

I thought this was one of Coben’s better novels… I’ve read several.  He is gifted at building the suspense, inserting many twists and turns, and tying it all together in the end.  However, I most always find his plot a little too contrived… the events too coincidental.  Missing You is no different.  Finding an ex-boyfriend on an online dating service after 18 years under a different name? …hum.  The feeling of, ‘Really? How can that happen?’ just ruins the experience for me.  I become focused on the bizarre coincidence or seemingly manufactured event and that destroys the effect of what is otherwise good writing.  I hate it when that happens.  Airplane book-yes, power rotation-no.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Running Stupid by Morris Fenris

I think most would consider Matthew Jester to be very lucky. He started off in a crumby family, was homeless as a teenager, then hit it big when he won a UK lottery.

Then he won again.  And again. Now he shares a £9 million home with England’s version of Beyonce. Like I said . . . Lucky.

A middle east-based bank has tarnished his sensibilities so Matthew sues. And he wins the largest civil suit against a bank ever recorded. Lucky.

He returns home from the verdict to find his lover slaughtered in their bathroom. His luck has run out. In his flight from the police he has to evade a bizarre set of farm-types, hired killers, a suspect driver, an ambush in a hunter’s cabin. Everywhere he turns, someone is trying to kill him, probably for the megamillion pound reward for his capture.

Not so fast. Every attempt on his life was orchestrated by the bank owner for the entertainment of an international club of billionaires.

About that time I started to lose interest . . . too contrived even by my low standards. But once he arrives at a London hotel, the story picks up with the hunter-prey version of a lab rat lost in a deadly maze.

This was a freebie found on And for this venture into free reading, I’d call it ‘you get what you pay for.’ 75% of the book was entirely forced. Found myself just scanning page after page to keep me somewhat interested. The last 25% was OK and certainly unexpected. If you were between books and looking for something to kill some time, this would be reasonable. But I wouldn’t put it on a list as a must read.