Over 550 book reviews with full author links

29 August 2013

Frank Hughes: The Vodka Murders

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Good plot but could have been better
This novella again features "hero" Nick Craig from the exciting James Bond genre action-packed "Devil's Run". Nick is "in transition" recovering from his stressful experiences on the Devil's Run but also because he is out of work as the security firm he worked for went out of business when his boss was killed (see the previous book).

Nick is woken at 5.30am by two NYPD Homicide cops investigating an overnight contract killing of someone who had Nick's old business card in his pocket. The victim had sent Nick a package and he is nearly killed collecting the package from a Fedex courier. This takes Nick into the world of the mob, a contract killer and connecting again with John Roma, a very senior FBI agent. Nick's wisecracking personality is quickly apparent and this time I was glad to see that he was able to exercise his very positive libido.

The plot all looks good but I really didn't connect well to what was happening because it was a fair way into the book before I realised that the lead character was Nick Craig. The first chapter didn't mention his name until a Detective called him "Mr Craig" well into the chapter. There was little background to Nick's experience and skills as he plunged deeper and deeper into his investigation, and the sudden appearance of John Roma to help him is not really explained.

With a bit of editing to make things easier to understand this would be a pretty good novella.

27 August 2013

Terry Hayes: I am Pilgrim

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Move over Jackal, here comes Pilgrim?
This is definitely the best covert ops/terrorism/murder book I have read this year. Whether it gets into my top 10 best thrillers depends on how long it remains in my memory. There is a lot to remember in a complex 700 page book that left me with so many impressions - intelligent and clever, superbly and deeply plotted, brilliant characterisation, ambitious, enthralling, page-turning, action-packed and mostly unpredictable.

Pilgrim is the codename chosen by a man who doesn't want to exist. An adopted son of a wealthy family he has always been a loner and after college becomes part of an unknown covert US government group. After becoming the star operator in the group in an operation in Russia he goes into anonymous retirement and writes an obscure book under a pseudonym about the forensic background to the perfect crime. Can anyone commit the perfect crime using this information?

On the other side of the world in Saudi Arabia another youth grows up in a world where his father is beheaded for being reported to the secret police for criticising the King. This leads him into a life dedicated to Islam but also a life dedicated to eliminating the US, the country who supports the Saudi regime and fights his fundamentalist Islamic ideals. This is the birth of a terrorist called Saracen, a loner with long term plans to change the world.

Hayes takes us on an epic and unpredictable journey by Pilgrim to solve a perfect crime and at the same time find Saracen before he can deliver a far greater blow to the US than a nuclear holocaust. The action moves from the US to Afghanistan, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Turkey in a maze of seemingly unconnected events and builds up to a potentially cataclysmic ending.

Along the way Terry Hayes sows seeds that grow in unexpected parts of the plot. Sometimes I spotted the seeds but rarely worked out where they would grow. This cleverly designed unpredictability was to me the keystone of Haye's writing powers. At the end of the book he reflects that he had been told that writing a movie is like swimming in a bath and writing a novel is like swimming in the ocean. With his writing skills I think that Hayes would have no difficulty swimming across the (literary) Channel.

Terry Hayes has had a remarkable writing career as a journalist, and TV and movie screenwriter in Australia and the US and this novel is the start of what could be an important career as a novelist. Dame Gail Rebuck, CBE (Chair of Penguin Random House) has reportedly called it "The best debut thriller since Day of the Jackal". I am inclined to agree.

Note: This book is published in Australia, NZ and the UK but won't be released in the US until May 2014. The link is to the Australian version of the book.

Lee Child: Never Go Back

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Reacher's 18th Repetition
There are not many authors who can write 18 books in a series and keep people's interest. Lee Child has done that for years with his very successful Jack Reacher series and I was looking forward to reading this book to see if it was sufficiently different to maintain my interest. The answer is that I still found the story entertaining but, despite the unusual plot line of Reacher being dragged back into the military after many years, the rest was repetition of a well worn theme.

After leaving the military Jack Reacher has become a nomad, wandering the US to wherever takes his interest. Recently his interest went back to how his old unit, the 110th MP, was faring and he had spoken with the new CO, Major Susan Turner, on the phone. Reacher liked her voice and wants to meet her so travels to Washington DC where the unit is still located. What he doesn't expect to find is that there is now another new commanding officer who promptly tells Reacher that he is under investigation for two offences, the death of a suspect who he is accused of attacking and a paternity suit for a 14 year old girl.

What Reacher didn't realise was that, because of his rank and security clearance, he can be recalled to the military at any time if he is in good health and under 55 (if you have been in the US Military I would carefully examine your discharge papers). The new CO tells him he has been recalled and "You're back in the army, Major. And your ass is mine."

So far so good - a scenario to make a new Jack Reacher book different. But from then on it was more of the same for Reacher - on the road escaping from trumped up charges, taking on and injuring the baddies, and getting evidence to clear himself (and on this occasion the attractive Susan Turner who is also under investigation) and sleeping in worn out motels to avoid detection.

While overall I enjoyed the book I found the repetitious parts overwhelmed the different scenario. So I repeat something I said in my review of  "A Wanted Man", 17th in the Jack Reacher series, that IMHO the series showing signs of running out of steam. Nevertheless I know that this book will be another bestseller for Lee Child (the back cover of the book tells me that a Jack Reacher novel is sold somewhere in the world every four seconds and the sales of this book will keep up the momentum).

Many of you may not be aware of the minor stoush between Lee Child and David Baldacci which continues in this book. Baldacci has written two books in his John Puller series with a lead character with very similar size, background and abilities as Jack Reacher. In "A Wanted Man", Child included a dim witted deputy named John Puller. When Reacher met Puller and found he was a dim wit, he said "Were you dropped on your head as a baby?"  In "Never Go Back" two of the pursuers gets onto a plane with Reacher, but one gets his fingers broken and the other his arm broken by Reacher (incredibly without other passengers knowledge). The name of one of them was Ronald David Baldacci. This may seem funny but I found it a bit childish (please excuse the pun).

20 August 2013

Nicholas Sparks: The Wedding

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What can you do when romance has gone from your marriage?
"The Wedding" is a sequel to "The Notebook" (which hopefully you can read first) where Nicholas Sparks introduced us to Noah and Allie and showed us his understanding about love and relationships and how they can endure across the years. The main characters of this book are their daughter Jane and husband of thirty years, Wilson who are forced to face the painful truth that the romance has gone out of their marriage, especially now their three children have left home.

What do you do if you have been married for many years and forget your wedding anniversary? When this happened to Wilson he took it as a wake-up call to try and mend a marriage that he had somehow taken for granted, especially working long hours and leaving most of the parenting to Jane. The things that Wilson does to try and mend their marriage are touching, compassionate and utterly surprising.

Noah is still alive and living in a care home after Allie died with Alzheimer's. He still believes that Allie is around him in the form of a solitary swan who has lost its mate (as he points out swans only have one partner in life). Wilson is very close to his father-in-law and confides his problems with him for emotional support.

The catalyst for Wilson's fightback is the upcoming short-notice wedding of Anna, their eldest daughter. Jane is fully absorbed in the frantic wedding preparations and is surprised that Wilson, taking his first long break from work for years, is so positive and helpful with the Wedding.

Once again Nicholas Sparks shows us his skills in writing a very emotional and touching book. While IMHO "The Notebook" was slightly better the difference is very small. If you are a fan of Nicholas Sparks and his kind of books about love and relationships you will really enjoy this book.

18 August 2013

Ken Follett: Eye of the Needle

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Great Golden Oldie WW2 Spy Thriller
With "Eye of the Needle" Ken Follett has written one of the best WW2 spy thrillers. In 1944 the most vital information on the outcome of the war was the location of the invasion of France - information that could fundamentally change the outcome of the war. The location of the landings in Normandy was closest kept secret with MI5 implementing the most amazing misinformation campaign in history.

By 1944 MI5 had caught and executed most German spies, but was able to turn some into double agents sending misleading information back to Germany. There was one ruthless agent - nickname "The Needle" (Die Nadel) - who was able to elude capture for years. What was even more important was that Adolf Hitler knew him and trusted everything that he sent back to Germany and was waiting for his report about where the landings would take place.

Follett creates a wide range of memorable characters, including the cold blooded Die Nadel. An absent minded Professor becomes head of MI5 strategy of disinformation, helped by his Scotland Yard assistant whose wife was killed in the Blitz. A young Spitfire pilot who loses his legs in a car accident on his honeymoon ends up in a loveless marriage hiding from the war on a remote island off the coast of Scotland.

Follett sets up an exciting chase when Die Nadel tries to escape with the information Hitler needs. The plot surprisingly shifts focus at the end from a spy thriller to a unexpected lusty romance with a chilling ending.

This tale is not only exciting but also plausible (see Mark Black's  "D-Day: A Very Brief History"), with vivid details about life in the United Kingdom during the War. It was an enthralling and electrifying story (you must read the ending to really understand what I mean).

While reading this book I kept comparing it with Jack Higgins "Night of the Fox" which is also based on the secrecy of the location of the D Day landings. The stories have completely different angles and my comparative rating is a dead-heat.

13 August 2013

Mark Black: Hitler: A Very Brief History

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How was this allowed to happen?
It is now around 90 years since the emergence of Adolph Hitler onto the German and later the World political stage. Reading a brief account of how Hitler came to power, his takeover of the German political system and then his attempts to take over most of Europe and Russia makes me wonder how this was allowed to happen. It still amazes me that Hitler, with a lot of brutal skulduggery, could become dictator of Germany, with the apparent support of most of his people. He was then able to start a World War against his neighbours and engage in the deliberate genocides of Jews and those he considered as undesirables.

This brief history tells the general story well, from the end of WWI to Hitler's suicide at the end of WWII but it doesn't have the time to fully analyse how the German people and the rest of the World allowed Hitler to have such power and inflict such damage. Fortunately Hitler's shortcomings as a leader, especially his poorly prepared attack on Russia, and a lack of understanding of the economic and military strength of the US, were the main reason for his eventual demise.

Thanks again to Mark Black for giving me a better knowledge and understanding of major events in fairly recent world history.

10 August 2013

Allison Leotta: Speak of the Devil

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Authentic, violent legal thriller
Allison Leotta's legal thrillers are realistic because they are based on her extensive knowledge from when she worked in the DC Attorney General's office. This thriller is based on actual cases involving the notorious ethnically Central American MS-13 gang renowned for their violence, merciless revenge, and cruel retributions.

Anna Curtis is an Assistant Attorney General in DC specialising in sex crimes. She is also about to become engaged to her longtime partner, African-American, Jack Bailey, chief of the DC's homicide unit. Jack's wife, Nina, also a cop, was shot a few years ago by the MS-13 and he has been left to bring up his young daughter, Olivia, on his own.

At the same time as Anna and Jack are celebrating their engagement, a police raid on an alleged brothel planned by Anna goes terribly wrong. The police arrive at the same time as members of the local MS-13 gang are taking retribution on the brothel owner and one of his girls. The brothel door-man is decapitated by the reclusive, heavily tattooed "Diablo" (the Devil), wielding a machete and the girl is violently raped. Despite the clear evidence most witnesses are too scared to talk because of fear of the MS-13 and Diablo in particular.

Leotta's realistic plotting and a host of fascinating characters from both sides of the law deliver up a nerve-tingling thriller, with a lot of most unexpected surprises and terrible violence including multiple stabbings and decapitation. The story is also set against the background of Anna's and Jack's evolving family life which also gets affected by the gang's activities.

Parts of this book are not for the faint hearted and it is incredible to me, who doesn't live in the US, that such violent gangs exist throughout the United States.

Allison Leotta is an author to be watched and followed, both for future Anna Curtis novels, and also for planned stand-alone novels that Leotta may write while Anna recovers from the professional and emotional impacts of this novel.

08 August 2013

Kathy Reichs: Bones of the Lost

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Connecting the Bones
Temperance (Tempe) Brennan is a rare breed, a world-class forensic anthropologist who investigates long-dead human remains and backs up the work of her local coroner with her knowledge of human bones. She is also your "normal" 40-something female - divorce pending; winning a battle with the bottle; unsure of her new partner; her only daughter has fled the nest, enlisted in the Army and is now in Afghanistan; and she is heavily overworked because she pushes herself to the limit.

A teenager is found dead along the side of a desolate road with signs that she may have been deliberately run over and possibly sexually abused. The girl had an airline card in her bag belonging of someone who died in a fire a while ago, and Tempe had identified the remains of his fire-charred body. Because of the vulnerability of the young woman, Tempe is determined to try and find out what happened.

Her search is interrupted by a call for her to travel to Afghanistan to exhume the bodies of two locals killed by a US Army Lieutenant during active service, who is under investigation for their murder. This sidetrack challenges Tempe's physical and emotional strengths. On her return things happen that make her think that there may be a link between the two cases. Her first reaction is - "I don't believe in coincidences."

Kathy Reichs has written several books in the popular Tempe Brennan series and uses her personal experience as a forensic anthropologist to make her stories authentic and entertaining. She is a good storyteller who weaves multi-themed plots around unusual events and environments. All of the Tempe Brennan books are well worth reading but this time I found the plot is a little bit too complex (and coincidental) for my imagination.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher for an honest review.

06 August 2013

Lee Child: High Heat

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Young Jack Reacher - Older than his Years
Have you ever wondered what Jack Reacher was like before he was old enough to join the army? In this very short action-packed novella, Lee Child tells us that he was a younger version of the same Reacher that we have grown to know and love over the years.

Reacher is only 16 years old, but is already an impressive physical specimen who is fully grown in height, weight, and muscle power. He is in New York on vacation alone (his Dad's current posting is Korea), and New York is sweltering in 100 degree heat. Like any teenager he is looking for a good time but, like the Reacher we know, trouble finds him before he can start looking. I counted four times when he had to show his already developed skills at unarmed combat, a couple of them against multiple opponents, as usual leaving battered bodies behind him. The good news is that, in between fights, he does find a good time.

It is always a joy to read Lee Child's concise, action-packed and very commercial writing style but I thought that this time the similarities to the older Reacher were unrealistic and over the top. The novella has probably been written as a tempter for the next Reacher book "Never Go Back" due out in about 3 weeks. It will be interesting to see if Child is able to maintain the Reacher momentum in the 18th book in the series.

05 August 2013

Richard North Patterson: Loss of Innocence

Emotional and evocative coming-of-age drama
"Loss of Innocence" is one of Richard North Patterson's most memorable novels - emotional, and thought provoking, conjuring up a pivotal era in fairly recent US history. It is a saga of the impact of class, money, power and pretense over family love and loyalty.

In a most unusual prologue, two women meet for the first time at Martha's Vineyard, a strange couple brought together by the memory of Benjamin Blaine, a man they both loved. Carla Pacelli was present at his death and is carrying his child. Whitney Blaine is twice Carla's age and her memories are of the man she met 43 years ago during a fateful summer on the island.

Whitney shares her memories of Ben in 1968 - a pivotal time in US history with the joint tragedies of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy set against the background of the Vietnam War and youthful rebellion against the war. Ben was a close aide to Kennedy at the time of his death and returns to his home on the Vineyard to recover and await his future at the hands of the draft.

Whitney is a daughter of privilege brought up in a rich world where a good marriage is expected and, after college, supporting her husband will be her main career. She is engaged to marry Peter who meets all of her parents' tests for a good husband, so much so that he is given a job in her father's business and the wedding gift is an apartment in New York near the office.

This is really a coming-of-age story for Whitney as she struggles to find her own path in the world. During that summer at Martha's Vineyard, Whitney meets Ben, who has been brought up on the Island under very different circumstances. Ben brings with him a different view of the world and they develop an unusual rapport that worries her family because his background and views are diametrically different to theirs. This is a recipe for the conflicts and betrayals that follow.

Richard North Patterson has been one of my favourite authors since his early legal mysteries and this is one of his best books I have read. Given that this book is so evocative of a key time in US history I am surprised that it has been released in Australia in August well ahead of its US release in October. Also surprising is that Paterson considers this book to be a prequel to his last novel "Fall from Grace". Both books will form part of a trilogy about the Blaine family which will conclude with "Eden in Winter" which is yet to be released.

04 August 2013

Malcolm Macdonald: Rich Are with You Always

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Great sequel to World from Rough Stones
This is the second book in the magnificent Stevenson family saga set in the exciting times of railway building and the first Industrial Revolution in the UK the first half of the 19th Century. In "World from Rough Stones" Macdonald introduced us to John Stevenson, whose charismatic organisational and management skills took him from being a lowly navvy to a major constructor of railways. "Lord John" (as his workmates call him) meets destitute Nora Telling and is immediately attracted to her, not only physically but also for her financial skills and strategic thinking. Thus starts an amazing fictional rags to riches story set in an accurate historical background.

With skill, luck and a bit of skulduggery, over 10 years John and Nora have built one of the largest construction businesses in the UK. In "Rich Are with You Always" we follow the Stevensons (and their rapidly growing family) up to the 1851 Great Exhibition in London that showcases England's industrial achievements. Although they are starting to become mega-rich, the Stevenson business only flourishes because of Nora's financial skills, and again some skulduggery, in a business world caught up in the excesses of the railway bubble. While frequently sailing close to the wind, they survive the bubble and become one of the richest families in England (and the world) at that time. We would probably call them one of the first billionaires.

Macdonald also follows the life of sex-obsessed railway engineer, Walter Thornton, who is married to pious sexually cold Arabella. While they surprisingly produce a similarly rapidly growing family, Walter addresses his sexual needs widely, but eventually meets his sexual soulmate from an unexpected quarter. This is an interesting interlude about the hypocrisies of Victorian life.

It is great to be able to revisit this series that I read back in the 1970's now they are being released in e-book format (as is the similar God is an Englishman saga by R F Delderfield). The characters are compelling and the story is page-turning as the Stevenson's business and marriage move from one challenge to another. The book covers an exciting period of economic development in the UK during which the country moved from a basically agricultural society to become the world's first industrialised country. I look forward to revisiting the rest of the series soon.