Over 550 book reviews with full author links

30 April 2015

Stephen Coots: Under Siege

A Jake Grafton "Lemon"
I have read and enjoyed several books in the Jake Grafton series by Stephen Coonts but unfortunately IMHO this one is a "Lemon". It falls between the early adventures when Jake Grafton is a Naval pilot and the latter stories when Grafton is associated with covert operations. This time Grafton is working in the Pentagon directly for the Joint Chief of Staff on drug related issues and seems to be a bit out of his depth in a pretty unrealistic story.

What would happen if a Colombian drug lord is apprehended and brought to trial in DC? What would happen if that drug lord (with a wealth of billions of dollars) wants to spend part of his wealth hiring terrorists and assassins to bring Washington to its knees? Coonts paints a violent picture of a missile attack on the President's helicopter, the assassination of several key politicians, Judges and power brokers plus an invasion of suicide gangs intent on killing as many people as possible.

What is the outcome - martial law and Grafton and his cronies trying to find the main assassin and destroy the suicide gangs. This is done against a background of war between drug dealers. IMHO things like this are a bit over the top.

All in all this book really didn't work for me especially because Coonts involved real people in the drama, with George Bush Snr and Dan Quayle taking leading parts in the fiction. He also manufactured a fictitious overthrow of Fidel Castro.

The only part of this story that really interested me was that Coonts told me how Washington Post journalist Jack Yocke became an unusual associate of Grafton - something that had puzzled me in some future books where Hockey plays an important supporting role.

All in all I still love the Jake Grafton series, despite this "Lemon".

Walter Tevis: The Hustler

The need to win is everywhere in life
The late Walter Tevis was a fantastic storyteller, especially when the story involves someone who has an inbuilt need to win. This time the tale is about 'Fast Eddie' Felsen, a young pool hustler, who had an ambition to beat the best pool players in the country.

After making his seed money in small Pool Halls around the US, Eddie arrives in Chicago to find Minnesota Fats - the best there is. Travis describes Eddie's first pool battle with Fats almost on a stroke by stroke basis, building up the tension, the exhaustion and the emotional strengths of the two players.

This is also a coming of age story for Eddie as he meets shy Sarah, slowly falls in love but doesn't have the emotional strength to understand what is happening. Travis also shows that Eddie can't make it to the top without support from others and how Eddie doesn't realise that he needs that support to  achieve his dreams.

You don't need to be a pool player to understand what is happening as Travis is a master in describing complex things in simple and understandable language. While his prose is straightforward he is able to put you into the middle of an action-filled and evocative arena. His games become battle scenes as bloody and compelling as scenes on a real battlefield.

I first encountered Tevis's work in THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT where the battle scenes were on the chess board (and you didn't need to know how to play chess to appreciate the action). Tevis followed up THE HUSTLER  with THE COLOR OF MONEY where we meet Eddie later in life still wanting to follow the ambitions of his youth. I look forward to reading that book soon.

29 April 2015

David Baldacci: Memory Man

Agonies of a perfect memory
Over the years David Baldacci has created a range of interesting characters and this one is probably one of the most unusual. Amos Decker was involved in a serious violent football tackle where he died twice and woke up with hyperthymesia (an exceptional memory of everything that happens).

Amos - the "Memory Man"- went on to become an excellent detective (helped by his great recall of details). One evening he returns home and finds his wife, young daughter, and brother-in-law have been brutally murdered. Amos's world collapses as he is not able to forget anything about that night - his mind replays things like a DVD. He just avoids suicide, quits his job, and becomes homeless. Eventually he pulls himself together sufficiently to set up as a PI and earn enough to live in a low-cost Motel.

Amos is a pretty forbidding character, six-five, and has let himself go - fifty pounds overweight, shaggy and initially bearded. Because of his "gifts" his social skills are lacking (he's a bit of  a UK TV's Doc Martin).

Horrific murders happen at the local high school and Amos is asked by the local police chief to help because they a don't have a clue how the killer got into or out of the school. At the same time a strange man confesses to the police that he murdered Amos's family, but was in police custody at the time of the murders. Amos has to take better control of himself as the two tragedies slowly converge and he is the only person who can unravel what has happened.

Baldacci has written a complex, frequently confused story about a huge man with a huge memory who is struggling to understand and survive huge emotional traumas. The plot meanders and loses direction and sometimes passes the believability level. The book it is listed as a standalone but the ending suggests that Baldacci plans to bring Amos back and it seems to me that he has edited parts at the last moment to allow this to happen. This is very confusing - I am not sure if this is a good idea as Baldacci has several other good characters around (for example, Will Robie, the hitman with a conscience, is coming back in November).

25 April 2015

Harlen Coben: The Stranger

"Do you really think anything is truly a secret?"
One day a "Stranger" approaches Adam Price at a school sports meeting and tells him that his wife faked a recent pregnancy and miscarriage to keep him from leaving. He also speculates that Adam might want to check the DNA of his sons to prove that he is really the father.

Adam's world is turned upside down when he finds that his wife has purchased something from a website called Fake-A-Pregnancy.com. He confronts his wife who asks for time to think about a response - then she disappears.  The Stranger then tells someone else unpleasant things about how a family member is financing her college fees that has a serious impact on that person's life.

The story develops as the impacts of the Stranger's activity unravel and have more serious and complex consequences than anyone could envisage.

While the plot is fascinating the writing and the setting didn't grip me. I put the book down several times and moved over to other books that took my attention before eventually getting to the half-way point when the implications of the various revelations started to unravel and become more interesting. I think part of the reason for my lack of connection is that the US setting in a society absorbed in living the dream, especially in the competitive field of college sports is foreign to me as an Aussie.

I have read and enjoyed most of the the last few of Coben's annual mysteries, but this one didn't rank as highly as the others.

Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Havoc

Another great Richard Sharpe adventure
Bernard Cornwell has written another page-turning historical adventure featuring Lieutenant Richard Sharpe, a foot soldier in the Napoleonic Wars between France and Britain, this time during the campaign in northern Portugal in the spring of 1809.

Sharpe is leading a very small company of riflemen cut off in Portugal from the main English army when French Marshall Soult takes the key city of Oporto, a key stepping stone to taking the capital Lisbon. While it is an almost impossible task to fight his way back to British lines, Sharpe is ordered to follow Lieutenant Colonel James Christopher (a Foreign Office agent) and find Kate Savage, a 19 year old English girl who has run away from her mother to a town under attack by the French. On the way Sharpe joins up with a group of 37 Portuguese soldiers who have also been cut off during the attack on Oporto.

At last Sharpe is beginning to make his mark as an officer, despite the distrust of his peers of someone who was born into poverty and his troops towards someone who started out as a humble private.  Sharpe achieved his promotion to an officer through bravery in the field and gets the respect of his troops through tough and skilful leadership under almost impossible conditions.

Sharpe, his men and the Portuguese group fight their way out of danger against far superior French forces and track down the renegade Colonel Christopher who has suddenly become an ally of the French. Their only hope is that General Arthur Wellesley (the future Duke of Wellington) will arrive with relief forces in time to drive the French out of Portugal.

This is another great adrenaline-filled page-turning authentic historical re-enactment with Richard Sharpe taking a front-seat role in the battles for the control of Portugal.

I have resolved to read all of this brilliant series - so far I have read 9 with only 13 to go.

21 April 2015

Steve Martini: The Second Man: A Paul Madriani Novella

Short but with a message
E-novellas are normally written as promos for a forthcoming full length book - this one is no exception. The main difference is that Steve Martini wrote this novella to highlight the issue of the impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on returning US military personnel. US Navy SEAL's are highly trained killers who are sworn to secrecy about their sometimes very deadly missions. Adjusting to the peaceful environment of civilian life after being a SEAL is even more difficult and stressful than for most other military personnel.

Paul Madriani is asked for legal help by an ex Navy SEAL who says he is being sought by the authorities for disclosures he may have made about the most famous SEAL raid ever. While Madriani is not prepared to help the SEAL he gets dragged into a deadly game of intrigue when his girl friend joins the SEAL to find out more about a top-secret drone program.

This is a short, somewhat disjointed story about a dangerous man with a dangerous psychological condition.

16 April 2015

Ian Rankin: Knots and Crosses (Inspector Rebus 1)

A great beginning
This is #1 in the long-running John Rebus series by Ian Rankin. While it has some of the signs of a debut novel it also shows Rankin's great ability in plotting a thriller and developing a character as complex as John Rebus.

After an eventful and stressful experience with the SAS Rebus is adjusting to life as a Detective Sergeant in the Edinburgh homicide squad. He is still suffering from post traumatic stress but he can't remember what was the real trigger. He drinks too much, smokes too much and still suffers nightmares. His marriage has collapsed, he only sees his teenage daughter occasionally and his love life is occasional.

Rebus is thrown into a major investigation of a serial killer of young girls where there are no real clues except that the killer will strike again. The only thing that can be done is to try and find a clue through diligent police work. Rebus is part of the team but doesn't realise that the case has a personal element - until almost too late.

There is a bit of a strange sub-plot featuring Rebus's brother John who has taken over his father's profession as a stage hypnotist, and a local crime journalist who thinks he knows more than he really does.

Ian Rankin has written 19 bestselling crime novels in the John Rebus series with another one (Even Dogs in the Wild) due to be published in November 2015. This series has come a long way since this book was first published nearly 30 years ago. At the time Rankin contemplated making it a standalone book - thank goodness he allowed the series to develop. It now has a such a cult following that the real settings used in later books in the series are now part of tourist "John Rebus" tours.

There is still some time before #20 in the series is published and I will try to find the time to read more of this great series before then. Unfortunately there are other talented writers of "Tartan Crime Noir", especially Stuart MacBride, who will compete for my attention.

15 April 2015

Walter Tevis:The Queen's Gambit

“Would you like to play chess?”
This is a wonderful book about a remarkable character. "With some people chess is a pastime, with others it is a compulsion, even an addiction... every now and then a person comes along for whom it is a birthright." This person is Beth Harmon - "she is quiet and well-mannered. And (when she plays chess) she is out for blood..." She hates to lose.

Beth Harmon was orphaned at the age of eight when her parents were killed in an automobile accident. She is placed in an orphanage in Kentucky that is almost a modern equivalent of a Dickensian orphanage, with children given tranquilisers twice a day to keep them calm and controllable - opening the gates to long-term addictions..

One day when cleaning the board erasers in the basement for a teacher, Beth comes across an old janitor playing chess alone. After several attempts the janitor agrees to show her how to play chess, and she goes over the moves in her head during the lonely hours when she can't sleep. It takes three games for Beth to win her first game and in three months the janitor can no longer beat her. Then he gives her a book - "Modern Chess Openings" - and Beth is addicted to chess for life, playing chess movements and strategy in her mind in class and in bed at night.

At thirteen she wins a local chess Tournament. With the help of her foster-mother by the age of sixteen she is competing in the US Open Championship. Her ultimate challenge is to go to Russia to face and beat the Russian world champions.

While it helps to know something about chess is not important because the late Walter Tevis wrote in a way that even if you don't understand what is really happening you are part of the action and this keeps you on the edge of your seat, barracking for Beth. If you are a chess "expert" you might find errors in the game and strategic descriptions, but you need to remember that chess is the vehicle Tevis uses to tell us a wonderful tale that could also apply to almost any competitive game.

The Queen's Gambit is a more than a story about chess - it is fundamentally a thriller with the same kind of adrenaline filled action that takes you into the heat of battle in a similar way that Bernard Cornwell takes you with Richard Sharpe into the heart of battles between the British and the French in the Napoleonic wars. All along I had to remind myself that chess is fundamentally a battlefield game between sides with a King and Queen, who live in castles protected by knights, supported by their Bishops, with an army of Pawns (soldiers). Let battle commence!

This is an exciting and beautifully crafted book which had a profound effect on me emotionally. It has gone straight to my best list of best reads of 2015 and will stay in my memory for a long time. Highly recommended.

10 April 2015

Helen MacInnes: The Double Image

"Spooks" in the Aegean
This is a fascinating Cold War espionage thriller by the late Helen MacInnes set in Paris, Athens and Mykonos. MacInnes was well known for the many best-selling espionage thrillers that she wrote from 1941 to 1984 covering WWII and the Cold War.

John Craig, a historian, is on a working holiday in Paris when he encounters Professor Sussman, one of his old teachers. Sussman tells Craig that he has just been a witness at war trials and tells him about his experiences in Auschwitz, especially with one of the worst of the Nazis, Heinrich Berg. While Berg is known to be buried in Berlin, when a stranger approaches Sussman he is sure that it is Berg. The next day Sussman is found dead in an apparent suicide from his hotel balcony.

Through his sister, who has been working at the US Embassy in Moscow, Craig meets a strange mixture of people from various nations, many of whom eventually turn out to be in the espionage business and are seeking Berg who may be Russian Colonel Insarov. As Craig is the only person who has seen Berg he is persuaded to go to Mykanos where a major Russian espionage group is planning an exchange or a coup. Craig gets drawn into the web of intrigue and proves to be as good if not better than many of the professionals.

This is a complex and compelling espionage tale with all the hallmarks of knowledge of fieldcraft of the day. Microfilm is the preferred data form for transfer of information as data storage and cell phones were still in the future. While I was absorbed and involved by the plot I had some difficulty in keeping up with who's who, from what country and who were working together. In the end a fair proportion of the tourists on the small island of Mykonos seemed to be spooks trying to outdo one another in their secret trades.

This was a thoroughly enjoyable and well crafted espionage thriller that took me back to the days of the Cold War. I certainly plan to read some more of MacInnes's books which are now being re-released in e-book format. Next time I plan to visit one of her WWII thrillers.

07 April 2015

Herman Wouk: The Glory

Epic history of Israel's fight for survival
This is the final volume of Herman Wouk's two masterly historical novels about the early days of Israel. Wouk is a compelling storyteller of Israel's dangerous and exciting days from the end of the Six Day War through the battles of the Yom Kippur War, the Entebbe Rescue and the first Camp David agreements.

Wouk tells the story through a few compelling fictional characters who interact seamlessly with real characters such as Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan and Menachem Begin and Egypt's Anwar Sadat.

This is edge-of-seat adrenaline-packed authentic and exhaustively researched historical action written by one of the World's best storytellers. Of course Wouk writes from a Jewish perspective backed up by vital knowledge about Jewish life and values and the various ways the Jewish religion is practiced. Despite this he pulls no punches with detailed descriptions of the chaotic practice of politics in Israel, the arguments, the disasters and the triumphs.

The surprise attack at the start of the Yom Kippur War by several Arab countries caught Israel by surprise during one of it most revered religious holidays and shows how close Israel came to absolute defeat. In the end audacity and sheer military skill left Israeli tanks within striking distance of Damascus and 100,000 Egyptian troops surrounded and starving in the Sinai. These amazing achievements have so easily been forgotten.

This a front-row seat of history as Israel becomes the centre of the Cold War and the World gets nearly as close to a nuclear war as the Cuban missile crisis. It also forms the foundation of the US support for Israel.

The story ends in the early 1980's - so much has happened since then as Israel continues to live a fortress existence, now facing different kinds of terrorist enemies and looming nuclear capabilities in Iran. The saga continues.....

02 April 2015

Andrew Gross: Reckless

GFC Conspiracy
I like financial thrillers and this one by Andrew Gross is one of the best I have read based on the events of the recent Global Financial Crisis. Gross uses his knowledge of the background to the GFC to craft a conspiracy thriller suggesting that it may have been partly manipulated by outside forces.

Ty Hauck is a former NYPD detective who is now a private security consultant to a big financial institution, but despite the greater income benefits he is not comfortable with his new role. In the midst of the GFC a key market operator, Marc Glasman, his wife April and most of his family are killed during in a midnight home invasion. Hauck gets drawn into the case because during a traumatic time in his past he had become very close to April and he makes a promise to himself that he will discover the truth behind the tragedy.

The killings become financially important when it is discovered that Glasman has billions of dollars in outstanding trades that could bring down one of the biggest Wall Street businesses. Then another Wall Street trader who appears to have committed suicide is also found to have billions of bad outstanding trades.

Hauck's soon realises that he is looking at murders arranged by powerful forces. He joins forces with Naomi Blum, a beautiful and ambitious US Treasury investigator as they track down the people behind this major financial conspiracy.

Andrew Grosss is a top-notch thriller writer who has written a page-turning and mostly plausible financial thriller that goes behind the scenes of the worst financial disaster in recent times. I will certainly look out for other books in his Ty Hauck series.

Jack Higgins: Rough Justice

The Prime Minister's Rottweiler 
It has been several years since I read a Sean Dillon thriller by Jack Higgins, and it was great to read one again. This time Dillon, ex-IRA enforcer, who is surprisingly now part of a covert group supporting the UK Government, takes a bit of a back seat with the introduction of Major Harry Miller MP who has as similar background of violence to Dillon, but from the other side.

Miller is on a mission for the UK Prime Minister (as his personal Rottweiler) to find out more about Russian influence in Kosovo when he meets Blake Johnston, the US President's head of dark forces. The meeting becomes explosive when Miller shoots the leader of a squad of Russian soldiers who are about to commit an atrocity to the inhabitants of a small village in Kosovo near the Russian border. The incident has international repercussions in London, Washington and Moscow and brings Miller, Dillon and Major Ferguson together to defeat the plans of the secretive "Broker" with connections to Bin Laden, and Putin's Rottweiler General Volkov.

The plot is made more entertaining and different with the introduction of Miller's sister Monica, Lady Starling, a lovely widowed University Don who is immediately attracted to and excited by the dangerous Dillon.

While some of the plot was a bit over the top it did show that Jack Higgins continues to be a master craftsman of page-turning political thrillers full of exciting international suspense, intrigue and action. I hope to catch up with a few more in the series from time to time as I have always enjoyed Jack Higgins writing and am sure that they will keep me well entertained.

01 April 2015

Laura Lippman: In Big Trouble (Tess Monaghan Novel Book 4)

Not worth the trouble
For some time I have been meaning to sample one of Laura Lippman's books about Tess Monaghan, first an investigative reporter and  now a "fearless" private investigator. I was disappointed.

Tess is a strange PI who really doesn't know what she is doing and stumbles around (trailing her pet Greyhound with her) doing silly things that accidentally lead her to solving a case. I really didn't connect with the character, the writing or the plot and only finished this book by flipping the pages and thinking that things would improve - which they didn't.

Josephine Moon: The Chocolate Promise

Chocolate romance
This is a light and entertaining book set in Tasmania, Paris and Provence.

The main themes are Christmas Livingstone's love for chocolate and other sweet delicacies and one of her ten rules for happiness 'absolutely no romantic relationships'. Of course rules are made to be broken.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin and The Reading Room for this copy to read and review.