Over 550 book reviews with full author links

31 December 2013

Clancy Tom & Mark Greaney: Command Authority

Click to see in Amazon
 A fitting farewell to the Jack Ryan saga
This is the last Jack Ryan novel signed off by Tom Clancy before his untimely death in October 2013. I say signed off because it is clear that for many years Clancy had relied on a stable of co-authors to write most of his books - and Mark Greaney is the best of them all and should be given most of the credit for this book. "Command Authority" takes us back to the classic days of "Clancy's" writing style and plots for politico/espionage/covert ops thrillers based loosely on actual and imaginary relations between the US and the rest of the world.

Jack Ryan, Senior, is President again and his son, Jack, Junior, is working as an analyst with The Campus, small off-record self-financing covert operations group set up with Ryan, Sr's. blessing. While Jack is at heart an analyst he is being trained as a covert operator by Ryan's old chums, including John Clark and Domingo Chavez.

In a thinly disguised critique of modern Russia under former KGB Lieutenant Colonel and now Russian President, Vladimir Putin, Greaney introduces us to Valeri Volodin, a dominating and aggressive Russian President who had also served with the KGB. Volodin become wealthy during the breakup of the Soviet Union before gaining political power. After a carefully contrived assassination of the former head of internal security which he blames on the West, he combines the internal and external security services under Roman Talanov, an unknown but ruthless person with links back to the KGB and to one of the most powerful gangs in the Russian Mafia.

This time Jack Ryan Senior gets involved again with the Russians when and old Russian adversary, now a friend falls ill in the White House with a fatal dose of radioactive Polonium. All things point to the Russian Secret Service being involved.

Jack Ryan Senior also gets involved in thwarting, with the help of NATO, a Russian attack on Estonia. After this Volodin steps up his plans to invade and absorb Ukraine into Russia and tasks Talanov to get Gleb the Scar, chief operative of the Seven Strong Men criminal organization, to organise internal resistance. The Campus tracks down and keeps an eye on Gleb who has taken over a heavily guarded hotel in central Kiev.

Meanwhile Jack Junior is in London working as a financial analyst and is tasked to find how the State owned Gazprom was able to virtually steal several billion dollars of pipeline and oil fields in Russia from a Scottish billionaire. Jack follows the money trail and finds that the money was laundered through a numbered Swiss bank account which has links to the former KGB. He also finds that over a billion dollars has been syphoned into a personal account, but Swiss laws prevent him from getting any information about the account.

In the background, and rapidly moving to the foreground, the focus turns to Jack Senior's work when seconded to MI6 in the 1980's hunting down Zenith, a Russian assassin code-named Zenith. The story switches between the past and the present as the significance of Zenith's identity and activity in the present becomes known.

From this you will see that Greaney has built up a complex and interconnected plot, with lots of espionage, and military and covert action. He has crafted one of the best contemporary Jack Ryan adrenaline-packed page-turning adventures for some time. After "Executive Action" I kept away from Clancy's work because it was running out of steam, both in plots and the writing. I didn't enjoy the first Greaney collaboration with "Locked On", but enjoyed "Threat Vector" (another Greaney collaboration) and really enjoyed "Executive Action". This is a fitting finale for the Jack Ryan series. Thank you Tom and your helpers for creating the genre of techno/espionage/politico/covert ops thrillers that have spawned so many other similar series.

Tom Clancy and Mark Greaney: Threat Vector

Click to see in Amazon
Best "Tom Clancy" Jack Ryan novel for some time
This is the penultimate Jack Ryan novel signed off by Tom Clancy before his untimely death in October 2013. I say signed off because it is clear that for many years Clancy had relied on a stable of co-authors to write most of his books - and Mark Greaney is the best of them all and should be given most of the credit for this book. "Threat Vector" takes us back to the classic days of "Clancy's" writing style and plots for politico/espionage/covert ops thrillers based loosely on actual and imaginary relations between the US and the rest of the world.

Jack Ryan, Senior, is President again and his son, Jack, Junior, is working as an analyst with The Campus, small off-record self-financing covert operations group set up with Ryan, Sr's. blessing. While Jack is at heart an analyst he is being trained as a covert operator by Ryan's old chums, including John Clark and Domingo Chavez.

This time the Ryans are involved with trying to destroy plans for world domination by China. This starts as a world changing cyber war with The Campus tracking down Chinese hackers who are bent on destruction of the modern world which depends so much on computers. Clancy (or should I say Greaney) have taken a big step forward in setting up a believable situation where a few key Chinese computer nerds can threaten to bring the world to its knees.

The plot also features political and military leaders of the Chinese Communist Party jockeying for position to either keep China the most powerful economy in the world or make it the most powerful military country in the world by conventional and cyber warfare. The start of their conventional war by declaring all of the South China Sea to be Chinese territory has a lot of similarities to what is happening with the dispute over ownership of islands with the Japanese.

The cyber background is believable, the covert ops exciting and the military descriptions more than adequate to maintain the Clancy image. Greaney and his military and computer advisers have put together a contemporary Jack Ryan adrenaline-packed page-turning adventure. After "Executive Action" I kept away from Clancy's work because it was running out of steam, both in plots and the writing. I didn't enjoy the first Greaney collaboration with "Locked On" but I am pleased that I decided to read this book.

28 December 2013

David Rollins: Standoff

Click to see in Amazon
Vin Cooper takes on the Cartels
OSI Special Agent Vin Cooper had been chasing an AWOL airman when he discovers that he has been killed in a massacre at a small private airport near El Paso, Texas. A couple of unknown planes visit the airfield unannounced and a squad of heavies massacre a family headed for a trip to Disneyland and anyone else in the way. Authorities at the scene miss that a ton of drugs has been stashed in a container on the airfield  - but Cooper doesn't and gets involved in a gunfight with corrupt police.

Soon Vin finds himself on the run from the police who have framed him for murders he didn't commit. This just happens to be the perfect cover for his most dangerous mission yet – crossing the border and infiltrating a drug cartel and finding out the reason for the massacre. This gets him involved with the leader of a major drug cartel just across the Mexican border in Juarez - the big question is whether they believe him. If not he cartel leader's main bodyguard promises Vin a very painful death.

While Cooper can work in a team he believes that he can achieve more when he acts alone as "Lone Ranger with no Tonto". This time is no exception when Cooper tries to do the unbelievable - infiltrate and destroy a Mexican cartel single-handed and stop another even larger massacre.

24 December 2013

Nicholas Sparks: The Resue

Click to see in Amazon
Predictable tear jerker
Nicholas Sparks is a consummate author of stories about mature relationships where couples with flawed histories discover one another. "The Rescue" demonstrates all of Sparks' undoubted skills in writing this kind of book with a fair dose of tear jerking thrown in for good measure.

Single mother Denise Holton is driving home during a bad storm when she swerves to avoid an animal on the road and her car skids off the road, knocking her out and trapping her. When volunteer fireman Taylor McAden rescues Denise the back door of the car is open and  her four-year-old son Kyle, a boy with severe learning and speaking disabilities, has disappeared into the surrounding forest. Taylor leads a search team to find Kyle in the dark during an intense rainstorm. The search is made more difficult because Kyle is not able to answer their calls.

Denise's life as a single mother with a young son with learning difficulties has been hard. She has recently moved to the small town of Edenton, North Carolina, spending most of the day teaching Kyle and working the late shift as a waitress. It has been a lonely life which has not left any time to make friends or have a relationship.

Taylor has always been a loner who  feels compelled to take terrifying risks to save lives but something in his past has made it impossible for him to have a serious relationship. A tender connection between Taylor and Denise, and especially with Kyle, develops. Taylor has to face his past if this relationship can continue.

I read some of Nicholas Sparks' books as an interlude from my regular diet of sometimes pretty heavy thrillers. This one gave me the interlude I needed and once again this was a good tear jerking tale about complex human relationships. This time, probably, because I have read a few of Sparks books with similar themes, the story was a little bit too predictable, especially the Epilogue.

23 December 2013

Jo Nesbo: The Bat

Click to see in Amazon
Disappointed again with an early Harry Hole thriller
A couple of weeks ago I read "Cockroaches" the second Harry Hole crime thriller and was disappointed. At the time I said that because all the later books in the series have been translated from Norwegian before Cockroaches there was probably a clue that this was not one of his better books. "The Bat" is the first in the series and was translated ahead of Cockroaches so I assumed it would be better - unfortunately I was wrong.

"The Bat" is set in my old hometown of Sydney. It was a bit like a tourist book taking in the best and worst of Sydney, plus a lesson about indigenous Australia from the local investigator. The main thing I learnt was that Australians called him Harry Holy which mystified me until I discovered that this is almost similar to the correct Norwegian pronunciation that sounds like Hula or Who-la. I guess that is why the translator decided to use the anglicised name of Hole.

I always prefer to start at the beginning of a series to keep track of character development and past historys. In this case I was wrong and I probably should have seen another clue and started with more popular books later in the series. I have read many better thrillers by Indie authors.

Others tell me that the later books in the series are much better. I do plan to read them but after this book it won't be a high priority.

18 December 2013

Candice Fox: Hades

Click to see in Amazon
Amazing, chilling, violent and emotionally challenging first novel
WOW, what an amazing first novel. I am emotionally flogged by the pace of the action, the violence, the body count and episodes of pure fear. With that background it is hard to say I enjoyed the ride but it will certainly stand out in my memory as one of the most unusual, outstanding and memorable crime thrillers I have read in the last 12 months.

Hades Archer is the man they call the Lord of the Underworld. He lives in a junkyard  in Sydney that contains twisted sculptures he has created from scrap. He will arrange to dispose of anything, including bodies - for a fee. Even Hades decides draw the line when someone wants him to dispose of two small bodies - who are still alive. Hades actions will affect many for years to come.

Twenty years later, homicide detective Frank Bennett meets his new partner, the dark and beautiful Eden Archer. Her brother, Eric, is also in the homicide squad and immediately makes it clear that he has real problems with anyone chosen to be Eden's partner. While they are experienced detectives, it is soon clear to Frank that there is something very unusual about Eden and Eric.

While investigating the attempted drowning of a drug addict the homicide squad don't believe his story about a cache of large toolboxes on the floor of the harbour until the divers bring up the boxes and the bodies they contain.  Hilary Mantel wrote a classic book called "Bring up the Bodies". Candice Fox could have easily given the same title to this book.

Frank and Eden are now looking for an unusual serial killer who kills to keep others living. While the body count keeps climbing Frank is faced with two challenges, to find out the dark secrets that power Eden and Eric, and to protect a potential victim of the serial killer.

This book is not for the faint hearted (an example - Hades observed "An adult body needed a long tooth saw"). It paces you through an emotionally charged, violent and bloody environment from the very start to a stunning climax. It is dark, compelling and very original crime fiction written by an author with a bright future. I totally agree with the book description that Hades is the debut of a stunning new talent in crime fiction. It only seems to be listed for release in Australia and New Zealand and definitely deserves a wider audience.

Candice Fox tells us on her website that she has a multi-book contract and she is close to completing her next book "Eden". While I look forward to that book I hope that the publishers will give me time to recover from this one.

My thanks to Random House and The Reading Room for providing an advanced copy of this book.

15 December 2013

Jack Higgins: A Season in Hell

Click to see in Amazon
Another great Jack Higgins Adventure
Jack Higgins can always be relied upon for an exciting page-turning easy-reading adventure story. This book certainly meets those expectations.

Sarah Talbot is a top Wall Street operator with connections to the US President. When she is at the top of her career she is devastated that her son has been murdered in Paris. Sean Egan is a former SAS and UK intelligence operative. He is similarly devastated when his sister is murdered, also in Paris. What brings them together in grief and revenge is the fact that both bodies were used to to smuggle heroin into the UK.

Sean and Sarah will stop at nothing to avenge the deaths that have one other common factor - the victims were drugged before death with a chemical that takes away their ability to understand what is happening. This chemical has only been seen elsewhere in assassinations in Northern Ireland. Their search for the drug mastermind takes them through London, Paris, Sicily, and Ireland as they uncover organised crime gangs that may be responsible. All the time they are tracked and sometimes assisted by a brutal operator working for the mastermind, known only as "Mr Smith". The most surprising thing is that they are assisted by a top Mafia boss who has never been involved with drugs and has a vendetta with another Mafia family who are at the top of the drug trade.

This was not as good as Higgins classic "The Eagle has Landed" and the "Night of the Fox" but was still a pretty good read, albeit a bit dated.

12 December 2013

Craig Lancaster: 600 Hours of Edward

Click to see in Amazon
A Gem of a Book about a person with Asperger's syndrome
Once in a while I come across a gem of a book that I will remember for a long time. It is about 600 hours in the life of 39 year old Edward Stanton who has Asperger's syndrome and lives alone in Billings, Montana. In writing  a diary for himself Edward says "This is a story of  how my life changed".

Edward lives alone because he has an obsessive-compulsive disorder which makes it difficult for him to relate to other people, especially if they don't conform with Edward's rigid and obsessive view of the world. He says "I'm developmentally disabled. But that doesn't mean I'm crazy". He has never been able to hold down a job because while he is very efficient in doing routine things in his own way, he gets angry when someone tells him to do things differently.

Edward's life revolves around a carefully constructed regime where he tracks common things in his life and does things at exactly the same time each day. This book takes us through 600 hours of Edward's life (we might think of it as 25 days but Edward prefers to see it in hours) when his self-structured life is challenged by people and events.

Every morning Edward records important data. He records the time he woke up - 7.38am which is exactly the time he woke over the last three days and for eighteen out of the last twenty and 221 times in the last year - the day of the year (the 287th day of the year because 2012 is a leap year), and the exact temperatures yesterday from the Billings Herald-Gleaner and the forecast temperatures which he will change tomorrow when the actual temperatures are known (forecasts are notoriously off base). He feels satisfied when he has completed his daily database recordings.

Edward visits his therapist at 10am sharp each Tuesday, refusing to start his therapy sessions even a minute before the appointed hour. He is supported by his rich and politically powerful father who can't relate to Edward (even getting his lawyer to write to Edward to arrange an appointment if there are any financial or other problems to discuss). Edward is frequently angry at people and things and his therapist encourages him to write complaint letters to them, but never post them. His unsent letters are all kept in green folders (because Edward prefers green) and his Father's folder is the largest of them all.

Edward's life is about to change and be challenged when a divorced mother with a young son move in across the street, he is successful in arranging his first date ever using and online dating service, and his relationship with his father is dramatically changed by an ultimate and unexpected gift.

This is a sensitive and emotional account of how a developmentally disabled person faces up to change. A lot of the book is repetitive because it records Edward's days and feelings in great detail - but that is the real story about Edward. Craig Lancaster allows us into Edward's life so that we can understand his feelings about the world. Lancaster has written a sequel, "Edward Adrift" which follows up on 600 Hours which will definitely be next on my reading list.

07 December 2013

Ian Rankin: Saints of the Shadow Bible (Inspector Rebus #19)

Click to see in Amazon
Vintage John Rebus
Ian Rankin is a top British crime writer and this is #19 in the extremely successful Inspector Rebus series. Recently I have read a lot of books by popular authors who try to put new life into a series that should be running out of steam. With this book Rankin is doing the same by taking us back to the John Rebus's early days in the police force and reviewing what he really is and what he has become.

John Rebus is back in the force which is his only life. The only way at his age he can continue to work in the force is to take a demotion to Detective Sergeant and he is now working for his old protegé Detective Inspector Siobhan (pronounced shiv-on) Clarke. Their first case together is a car crash where the daughter of an important London businessman is badly injured in a single driver car crash. What is strange is that her seat belt is unbuckled and one of her shoes finished up under the passenger seat, suggesting that someone else was driving and had moved her into the driving seat to cover up his part in the crash. Her boyfriend happens to be the son of Pat McCuskey, the Scottish Justice Minister and a top protagonist in favour of an independent Scotland.

At the same time DI Malcolm Fox of the Complaints Division (their Internal Affairs) is looking at a 30 year old case that involved the detectives at the Summerhall Police Station who were well known for keeping down the crime rate by doing things their way and sometimes bending the law to do this. Rebus was a raw Detective Constable at the time and was recruited to become one of the "Saints of the Shadow Bible" who swore to uphold their own policing standards. Rebus admits that at times he did a few things he now regrets but he was never knowingly involved in really bad things. While initially wary of Fox, John Rebus decides to help him with his investigation with the philosophy of "if you don't like them join them". Surprisingly Rebus and Fox work well together, but with slightly different motivations.

Most of the living members of the Saints are retired and frail, but DI Stefan Gilmour has moved on to become a very rich property developer who is a major proponent of the "No" case for an independent Scotland. Fox's investigations mainly centre on the acquittal of Billy Saunders for murder which he believes was manipulated by the Saints especially because Gilmour resigned from the force at that time. The investigation builds strength when Saunders disappears and is later found shot by a gun known to have been confiscated years ago by one of the Saints.

John Rebus is a enigmatic character who, despite his age, is still at the top of his game but no longer at the top of the force. He is a loner who collects evidence in his own ways and feeds it where it will have the most effect. While he was a member of the Saints he is prepared to look at all of their sins with Fox and make his own judgements.

In my opinion most authors I have read recently attempting a series revival have failed my tests in some way. Ian Rankin passed my tests with flying colours with this very clever and well written Scottish police/crime story which seamlessly mixes the past with the present against a timely backdrop of the current buildup to the referendum for an independent Scotland. While it is part of a series it can easily be read as a standalone story. I recommend this book to all lovers of UK crime stories and to others who want to get a good introduction to this genre.

James Lee Burke: Heaven's Prisoners (Dave Robicheaux Mysteries)

Click to see in Amazon
A compelling and intelligent thriller
Recently I told an author friend of mine that I was numbed by the poor quality of recent thrillers I had read and he told me to "read something by James Lee Burke - the man's a master". That was great advice. Burke doesn't write your normal type of crime thriller, he is a fabulous storyteller and a master of prose who writes stories of literary quality full of great characters, violent emotions with almost poetic descriptions of the landscapes where the action happens. 

Dave Robicheaux has retired from a long career as a homicide detective and is running a boat, bait and food business catering for tourists to the bayou area of southern Louisiana. He is very happy in his new marriage to Annie and is winning his long and hard battle with alcohol. Dave and Annie are on their boat one day trawling for shrimp when a small plane crashes nearby. Dave saves a six-year-old girl's life but her mother and three other people in the plane perish. Annie looks after the small girl who can only speak Spanish and names her Alifair, after Dave's mother.

When the police search the plane they only find three bodies. One man was missing. Dave remembered him clearly, he wore a pink shirt which had been ripped in the crash to show a tattoo over one nipple and his neck was broken. As usual Dave couldn't leave this alone and it  unleashes the devils of gang vengeance which strike at Dave and his family.

This is a dark story which is sometimes violent and faces up to the despair of loss and the demons of alcohol. It is also very philosophical about life and its dangers and weaknesses, which is rare in a thriller. I found parts of the book both compassionate and tear-jerking.

I strongly recommend this book as one of the most compelling and intelligent thrillers I have read for some time. This is the first of Burke's novels that I have read and it won't be the last. I will especially remember his vivid descriptions of the Louisiana bayou where I could almost smell the water, the moss, the trees and the flowers that Burke so loves. Another author who does this so well is the great Pat Conroy with his landscapes of the Carolina wetlands.

While this book was written in 1988, well before Hurricane Katrina, Burke may have had a premonition of the future when he felt a big storm building up and quoted the lyrics of this song - "Don't come `round tonight, it's bound to take your life. A bad moon's on the rise, I hear hurricane's a blowing, I know the end is coming soon, I feel the river overflowing, I can hear the voice of rage and ruin."

05 December 2013

Kathy Reichs: Bones in her Pocket

Click to see in Amazon
A small dose of Bones as an appetiser
This short story/novella was basically written as an e-book appetiser for Kathy Reich's next book, "Bones for the Lost". Tempe Brennan fans will no doubt enjoy another small dose of bones ahead of the larger dose in the next book.

Kathy Reich's long time character forensic anthropologist Temperance (Tempe) Brennan is called to identify a couple of bones found in Mountain Island Lake in a remote area of Carolina. When she gets to the part of the lake where the bones were found she spots an oversize canvas bag in the water covered with flies. Of course as Tempe is involved, the bag contains a decomposing body and she sets out to find who it is and who put it in the lake.

The immediate suspect is a local environmental activist and nutcase, Herman Blount, who Tempe finds "charismatic in a Charles Manson type of way". Tempe takes on her normal super sleuth role to identify the body and the killer.

Many authors write a short story/novella as a teaser for a forthcoming full-length book. Sometimes the teaser is better than the book and vice-versa. My jury is out on this one as I felt that this time Reichs had probably tried to put too many bones in a small bag.