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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Freedom of the Mask by Robert McCammon

From the author at the top of my power rotation. This is #6 in his Matthew Corbett series. Remember now, this series takes place in the early 1700s

At the end of River of Souls, Matthew Corbett was living way back in the swamps of South Carolina outside of Charles Town. He lives with a bit of a deranged woman who has mistaken Matthew for her husband. Various fights and battles have left Matthew with a less than stellar memory. He is being pursued by a Prussian count named Dahlgren who knows that the head of a massive English criminal network, the infamous Professor Fell, will reward him richly by delivering Matthew.

He kidnaps Matthew and books passage on a less than sea-worthy ship that barely survives a massive storm. During the storm, Matthew’s memory returns, realizes he is in a bad situation, and manages to escape Dahlgren’s clutches that results in Dahlgren’s death. The other passengers are appalled and turn Matthew over to authorities when they land in England. This places Matthew in the English criminal justice system where he spends excessive time in jails and prisons of increasing disparity.

Matthew’s mentor back in New York City, Hudson Greathouse, travels to South Carolina in search of Matthew. Finally learning Matthew is in transit to England, returns to New York to prepare for his own Atlantic crossing. The girl Matthew broke up with, to protect her from becoming a pawn in the Corbett vs. Fell battle, forces her way into Greathouse’s plans by joining his trip.

London streets are controlled by gangs who deal in White Velvet (gin infused with an addictive substance, supplied by Professor Fell’s personal chemist). But the gangs fear a masked vigilante named Albion who kills key members of the gangs in an attempt to break up their grip on the populace.

Fell knows Matthew is in England and executes a plan that will bring Matthew to him. But Fell has people within his own empire trying to topple Fell and take over.

That has been a pitiful attempt at presenting McCammon’s complex story. NYC . . .SC . . . surviving a hurricane . . . jail . . . prison . . . the court system . . . vigilantes . . . gangs . . . Mother Deare . . . drugs . . . week long transits by carriage . . . a fortified town . . . a naval bombardment . . . drugged compatriots . . . climbing in bed with the devil to save loved ones . . . dental ‘work’ . . . murder . . . mass murder . . . pistol/rifle/knife/sword play . . .

McCammon writes big stories and this is no exception, coming in at just under 600 pages. But as with every single book of his, length in never an issue. Upon reaching the last page, I still wanted more, but will have to wait a while to continue following Matthew’s travails.

If this stimulates anyone to consider this series, I strongly suggest starting at the beginning with Speaks the Nightbird. Matthew’s journey is so convoluted, detailed, and eloquently presented that it would be a mistake to jump anywhere else.

Available May 2016

The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

A young teenage girl is found dead, strangled, and left along a river bank. Clothes sliced open from her knees to her chin, pubic hair shaved. Arms outstretched with her palms up. A small cake, local to the region, placed between her legs. Shoes placed side-by-side in a place sure to be found and ensure discovery of the body.

The murder occurred in Elizondo, a small town about an hour from Pamplona in the Basque region of Northern Spain. The town is so small that the local police haven’t the wherewithal to investigate so case is passed to the regional police in Pamplona. The homicide department is fairly large with a number of quality detectives who could lead the investigation. But the chief chooses Inspector Amaia Salazar because she is from the town and should have a good understanding of the locals.

Amaia has two sisters, but left Elizondo after school to pursue a career in law enforcement where a female Inspector is not held in high regard by the historically macho Spanish police. Her family was the village baker and her older sister Flora took up the family business and 2nd sister Ros also worked in the bakery.

A second teenage girl is found. Same presentation. A 3rd girl is found, but the presentation isn’t the same. The conclusion is a serial killer and a copycat. All the bodies are found well off the beaten path. So far off the path that the cops have to get background information from the local department of natural resources. One of the theories presented is whether Basajaun was involved

A Basajaun is a mythological creature that protects the forest. Sort of a Basque version of Sasquatch or the Yeti. Witnesses, visions, and dreams seem to favor the possibility.

As the investigation slowly evolves, we learn that Amaia’s family easily met the definition of dysfunctional. One incident during Amaia’s adolescence drove her out of the family home to live with a Tarot Card reading aunt. These small villages all have their local spirit guide. The incident drove a stake through the family with continuing repercussions that affect the investigation and threaten to get Amaia removed as the lead investigator.

I’ve read a number of novels that are translations from Spanish, Portuguese, Swedish, Norwegian, German, and French. What you notice is that the Spanish language is very fluid and lyrical. A native English speaker might take a couple sentences to describe a kitchen vs. a Spanish author who’ll take the whole page. Just their way. Redondo presents eloquent descriptions throughout so the reader has an excellent visual picture in their mind.

This story is really two, with a little local legend to boot. One is the murder investigation and the impact that one single instance decades ago has on a family from then to now. And each is probably worthy of a standalone book. But the combination results in a rich story that opens the reader to a culture that is probably unknown to most.

Available March 8, 2016

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Even Dogs in the Wild by Ian Rankin

Ian Rankin has been writing John Rebus novels since the late 1980’s, nearly one a year.  Now with Rebus well past his prime, pushed in and pulled out of retirement only to be cast out again, Rankin delivers one more John Rebus novel.
Rebus loathes retirement.  He lives in a modest, dated flat where he’s always lived and drives an old beat up Saab.  He stays up late and drinks in neighborhood pubs not because of any friendships but so he doesn’t have to drive home drunk.  He continues to be a heavy smoker vowing daily to cut back but never does.  His daughter and grand-daughter live a couple hours away but he rarely sees them as he harbors the guilt of having been an absentee father.  So when one of his few friends from his days on Edinburg’s police force, DI Siobhan Clarke calls him and asks him to consult on a murder case, he eagerly accepts.

DI Clarke is investigating the murder of a senior lawyer who was beaten to death in his home.  The note left by the murderer is identical to one left at the home of Big Ger Cafferty along with a warning gun shot through his front window.  Big Ger is a semi-retired gangster who Rebus has chased his entire career.  They know each other so well, the mutual respect they have gained for one another has almost turned into friendship… almost.  Thus the reason DI Clarke requested Rebus to consult.

Meanwhile DI Malcolm Fox has some personal problems of his own.  He has romantic feelings for Siobhan but never tells her so their friendship remains platonic.  Plus, Malcolm’s father is dying and in a coma.  Even though Malcolm’s father kept him at arm’s length emotionally, Malcolm regrets never making an effort to show affection to his father.

Professionally, Fox’s former position with the police was in Complaints, the Scottish version of Internal Affairs, where he investigated other police officers.  His reputation as such created fewer friends than enemies so finding a fit for him in an investigation unit is proving problematic.  So when a covert police team from Glasgow comes to Edinburgh, Fox is assigned to the unit.  The team is surveilling Glasgow gangster, Joe Stark and his hoods as they wreak havoc with the local Edinburg gangs, in search of missing contraband.  As the body count rises, evidence suggests more crimes, even earlier ones, may all be connected.  Clarke, Rebus, and Fox find themselves all working on separate crimes but possibly all committed by the same perpetrator.

Rankin has a way of amassing the sorriest group of protagonists possible.  All failures in their personal lives but largely successful professionally.  The result is a group of workaholics, driven to work because work with all its danger and bureaucratic nonsense is a coping mechanism for failed lives and a far happier place than anything waiting at home.  This sad situation can only be described as human and yet intriguing for the reader.

Ian Rankin is currently on tour in the U.S. promoting Even Dogs in the Wild.  I hope to see him in person this week at his St Louis event.

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Travelers by Chris Pavone

Will Rhodes is an up and coming journalist in a dying business.  He works for Travelers, a travel magazine and globe trots to exotic and luxurious places to absorb the atmosphere -- food, wine, and culture -- to tempt American upscale tourists into a visit.  When traveling abroad, Will is often asked by is boss, Malcolm Sommers to deliver a personal and confidential envelop to the head of their agency branch in the foreign city.  

Will is happily married to another journalist, Chole who had also worked for Travelers but moved on to freelance work to diversify their professional financial exposure, a major concern for the newly married couple.  Will’s frequent travel quickly grows routine and tiresome and is taking a toll on his marriage when he meets a beautiful blond CIA operative, posing as a journalist.  Elle tempts Will with sex and money and ultimately recruits him as a spy against his employer.  Elle asks Will to spy on everyone he trusts in exchange for ten thousand dollars a month and a threat of blackmail.  His life will never be the same.

The more Will learns about Malcolm, his coworkers and his wife, the more confused he becomes.  Is anyone who they say they are?  Are they all working for the CIA, some rogue branch of the CIA, or some other foreign government or private entity?  Who does Elle really work for?  After a couple close calls, Will decides he can no longer live like this.  He must find out who is who and what is what, even if it kills him.

This is my third Chris Pavone novel and by far his most enjoyable.  It’s easy to empathize with the protagonist, Will Rhodes because he didn’t ask to be placed in this precarious situation.  He just happened into a spy ring… wrong place, wrong time.  Now comes the adventure for the reader and the challenge for Will, figuring out the true motives of all the people closest to him and why they picked him to be a part of it.  Pavone is getting better and better and I understand Dream Works agrees as they have acquired the film rights to The Traveler.  Thanks to NetGalley for the preview.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Purity by Jonathan Franzen

Purity Tyler, nicknamed Pip is a recent college graduate working in a dead end sales job with no hope of ever paying off her student loans.  She was raised in poverty in a rural Northern California town by a reclusive and eccentric mother who remains Pip’s best friend.  Pip’s mother has gone to great lengths to conceal her true identity and refuses to reveal anything about Pip’s father.  Pip lives in Oakland in a commune with a group of anarchists because that’s all she can afford and meets an East German woman who convinces her to intern with The Sunlight Project in Bolivia.  The Sunlight Project is run by an East German, Andreas Wolf who hires young idealist computer geeks to search out secrets to reveal to the world and therefore, make it a better place.
But Wolf has some secrets of his own.  Raised in East Germany under Communist rule by parents with prestigious government jobs and no time for a child, Wolf ultimately becomes a sexual predator and then a murderer.  But he has gained celebrity and credibility as an exposer of great injustice and lives in exile in Bolivia managing The Sunlight Project.  Only one person can expose him for the poser and deviate he truly is.  Tom Aberant met Wolf in Germany at a time when Tom was trying to end his marriage to Anabel, the daughter of a wealthy American agricultural tycoon.  Anabel had renounced her family because she thought their gains ill-gotten and their values immoral.  She fervently controls Tom and squelches any professional aspirations he develops.  Tom had made this trip to Germany primarily to escape Anabel and quite by accident meets Andreas Wolf in a bar.  In a drunken state of guilt, Wolf confesses his sins to Tom and Tom takes pity and helps Wolf cover up his involvement in the murder.
Now twenty some years later, Tom owns an online newspaper in Denver that was started with seed money from his father-in-law.  Anabel disappeared years earlier without revealing her pregnancy to Tom.  Wolf is increasingly worried Tom could out him at any time and uses his resources to get some dirt on Tom.  He discovers Anabel’s ‘hideout’ and her daughter Pip.  He sends the East German woman, a former lover to Oakland to recruit Pip for Sunlight. Wolf thinks by brain washing Pip and sending her to Tom, he can monitor the journalist’s activities and somehow deter any attempts to expose Wolf’s secrets.  But remember, Pip doesn’t know Tom is her father and Tom doesn’t know he even has a daughter.  Exposing this truth may be Wolf’s most consequential to date.

I chose to read Purity because it appeared on several best of 2015 lists and I felt the need to venture outside my preferred genre.  The book is way too long, bloated with information about characters you don’t need to know.  Plus there is much not to like about these characters.  I almost gave up on this book several times.  Yet there is an important lesson here.  The choices we make for our lives will impact others down the line more than we can fathom.  And I did enjoy the way the author connected the dots of so many supposed unrelated characters… made for some fun ‘ah-ha’ moments.  

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Over Watch by Matthew Betley

A number of years ago, this Marine squad was tasked with grabbing a CIA operative being held captive in an Al-Anbar house. Capt. Logan West wasn’t happy with the assignment. Came up too quickly. Not enough intel. Too many holes. But his commander says get with it.

The raid turns out to be a trap. The house was a torture chamber beyond anything they had seen before and what intel the CIA had was bogus and unsubstantiated. The squad was surrounded and most were slaughtered. West and his Gunny got out alive, but far from unscarred. Logan essentially quit the Marines, became a drunk and tossed out by his wife. Once Gunny John Quick was discharged, he ran for the boonies of Montana to escape his memories in a self-imposed prison in the mountains.

Logan awakens from a booze-induced blackout to what’s obviously a well trained military type standing over him in Logan’s basement. He wants an Iraqi battle flag that one of his Marines lifted from that torture house. Not interested in cooperating? Maybe the screams from your wife might change you mind.

Despite his hangover, West overcomes his opponent and heads for his wife’s house where 3 or 4 guys are doing their best to get her to call Logan for the information, but years of marriage to a Marine Force Recon officer taught a little toughness and she manages to off a couple just before Logan gets there to finish the job. A call to the FBI brings in a whole bunch of help.

That flag. What’s its importance and to whom? Maybe it’s that souvenir Gunny Quick brought back from the torture house. Well, the bad guys thought of that, too. And about a half dozen guys are working their way to the Gunny’s house unaware that being retired doesn’t mean the old skills are forgotten, and manages to keep one of the mercs alive.

The FBI, West, and Quick put their heads together and interrogate their captive. What the hell? They were hired by a security boss for a Mexican cartel. But what good is an Iragi flag to a cartel, where did they find all these mercs, and how does this relate to that failed mission in Al-Anbar?

Betley, a former Marine officer, takes the reader on a spectacular chase from Maryland to Montana to Texas and back to Iraq trying to find out the flag’s secrets, what those secrets are leading to, and where and when will whatever happen? The threat is that thousands may die forever changing the world.

The good folks are Atria Books (a Simon & Schuster imprint) sent this preprint with a note that Betley was signed by Emily Bestler who also brought Vince Flynn and Brad Thor to wide distribution. If she says this guy could be the next big thing in thrillers, who am I to argue? Pace and authenticity are the calling cards here and Betley has both in spades. No doubt the beginning of a series of Logan West books.

To quote Samuel L. Jackson in Jurassic Park: “Hold onto your butts.”

Available March 1, 2016

East Coast Don