Over 550 book reviews with full author links

20 November 2016

Peter Watt: While the Moon Burns: The Frontier Series 11

The MacIntoshes and the Duffys continue to battle on
Christmas is coming so it is time for the next annual episode from Peter Watt of his gripping Australian historical family saga/melodrama about the MacIntoshes and the Duffys. The main problem is that over the year I have forgotten so much about the many interesting characters that play a part in this long-running saga so it takes a time to remember them again, despite some pretty good back-story writing.

While the war in Europe is over the war in the Pacific continues its bloody toll. Lieutenant Donald MacIntosh (a goodie) and Major David Duffy are battling the Japanese in the jungles of New Guinea. Captain James Duffy, a US Marines top fighter pilot has returned to the Pacific War and Sergeant Jessica Duffy has returned from a secret mission where she rescued a key US officer from the Japanese.

Meanwhile, at home Sarah MacIntosh (a real baddie) is increasing her control over the MacIntosh businesses by foul means or fair (mainly very foul) and has taken advantage of war profits to increase the wealth and power of the businesses. Despite that, she never forgets her enemies and takes aim at Tom Duffy who at last, with her brother Donald's help, has at long last been able to purchase his ancestral property of Glen View. She also takes aim at anything that is precious to Donald.

As always the mythical elderly Aboriginal warrior Wallarie still haunts the family members, protecting some and warning others of danger. "A long time ago a white fella called Donald MacIntosh had all of my mob killed. I survived - and now I am also gone. Sometimes I fly to the earth as a wedge-tailed eagle and soar above the lands I once hunted."

This is a sweeping historical melodrama with so many characters and settings that it is sometimes hard to keep track of them. Peter Watt does a great job with these characters, especially the real baddies. He is also prepared to kill off characters who you are barracking to survive and prosper.

I have read all of this long running series and still come back to it from year to year. I seriously recommend that interested readers should start with "Cry of the Curlew" to give you a background to the series. Watt has a great feel for Australian history in the late 19th and 20th Century. This book takes us from the Pacific War to peace and then back to war again in Korea. It finishes up at the start of the Malaysian communist uprising which I am sure will be the starting focus for next year's episode.

11 November 2016

James J Kaufman: The Collectibles

An emotional tale of love and tragedy
In his early days, Joe Hart is exploring the mountain wilderness with his uncle when he comments that he feels so ordinary. His Uncle gives him this sage advice - "Do what the other fella can't. Be what the other fella ain't. And then help the other fella."

This is an unforgettable story of two men from different worlds, which collide early on but really collide many years later. In the mountains as a youth, Joe rescues Preston Wilson, another youth reluctantly travelling in the mountains with his dominating father. When Preston's father leaves his mother because he has become a financial failure Preston vows to do everything to become a financial success.

Years later, Preston is an apparent success but his automobile sales group is about to go bankrupt. Preston faces not only losing his businesses but also his wife who had financially supported him. At the end of his tether, Preston looks for a lawyer with a track record of helping businesses in trouble. This leads him to Joe Hart, who has become a successful lawyer after years as a top rated submarine commander. Preston realises that fate has once again brought him to Joe but how can he find him?

Joe has once again retreated to the mountains to recover from a personal tragedy. Preston tracks him down and tries to persuade Joe to come down and help him. Jo reluctantly agrees but only after he extracts three promises from Preston which he must fulfill whenever called upon. Preston meets the first two promises and Joe makes an arrangement with the banks for restructuring of the finances and changing the management of his businesses to give them a chance of becoming successful again.

Preston's businesses are now recovering but Preston cannot recover from the loss of his wife who walked out on him at his darkest hour. Then Joe calls in the final and most unusual IOU - Preston must meet, earn the trust of, and care for several people. These are Joe's "collectibles" - a rag-tag bunch of people that Joe has supported whom Preston would never normally want to know. Can Preston find the strength and integrity to make good on his promise to Joe? Does he have a choice?

This is a wonderful debut novel by James J Kaufman and I defy anyone with some sensitivity to have a dry eye during parts of this book, especially the finale. It is the first installment of a trilogy and I look forward to reading the other books.

I listened to this novel as an audiobook, which heightened some of the more emotional elements for me. As an Aussie, the American accent of the narrator was initially difficult to identify with but in the end, I quite liked the presentation.

10 November 2016

Lee Child: Night School

Getting to the end of the road so reinvent something
This is #21 in the long running Jack Reacher series. Each year I vow not to read Lee Child's annual episode in the life of Jack Reacher but each year I succumb to the addiction to find out how Child keeps a moribund series breathing. This year Child has run out of new ideas so he has to reinvent the past.

Back in 1996 Reacher is at his zenith as a Major in the CID of the US Army and has just got a medal for a secret operation in Bosnia when he is called to a innocuous "Night School" which really isn't innocuous. The only other students are another couple of guys from the FBI and the CIA who are also at the zenith of their careers. His teachers are from the top echelon of the security system working directly to the President. Of course one of the teachers is an attractive blond haired security specialist.

It is soon very clear that this is not a school but the start of an operation to track down potentially damaging terrorist activity happening in Hamburg, Germany. Child then starts a well written but pretty third-rate post Cold War thriller with Reacher, his trusted sergeant Frances Neagley, CIA agents and German police cooperating to chase down the terrorist threat. Of course Reacher and the attractive blond haired security specialist find time for some, off-plot and unnecessary, close personal collaboration that has nothing to do with chasing terrorists.

The story didn't really need Reacher to be the star who could think and act faster than the rest. It didn't really need Reacher to take on and beat up several German right-wing skinheads singlehanded. The story was there so that Child could reinvent the past to keep the series from running out of steam and keep his long time best-selling character alive and kicking.

While it is well written in Chld's inimitable addictive style, IMHO is doesn't solve the long-term issue that this series has run out of steam. But of course, like me, many people will read the book to find out if this conclusion is correct. Will I be back again next year for another dose of Reacher - at this stage probably not but then I've said that too many times before.

27 October 2016

David Baldacci: No Man's Land (John Puller Novel 4)

Reality check needed when Baldacci ventures into "No Man's Land"
There are two stories, both of which started nearly thirty years ago.

John Puller's mother disappeared mysteriously then and despite an intensive search and investigation, she was never seen again. New evidence has just come to light that Puller's father, now a retired 3 star General suffering dementia, had secretly come home to Fort Monroe from overseas on the day his wife disappeared and is now a suspect in her disappearance.

John Puller is now a crack CID investigator with the Army and would be officially barred from working the case and face a court-martial if he disobeys orders. It is not in his nature to do nothing in a case affecting him and his family. When intelligence operative Veronica Knox, his old "friend" and ally on other cases turns up he knows that the case has far more ramifications than he realised.

Also thirty years ago something terrible happened to Paul Rogers which changed his life forever. As part of a top-secret project, based in Building Q of Fort Monroe, his body was altered to give him extreme strength, and resilience to pain so that he could perform superhuman tasks, including killing without any conscience. Rogers has just spent the last 10 years in jail for murder and with his parole determines to seek out and deliver vengeance to those who were responsible for his condition.

The stories involve huge coverups at the highest level which are continuing to the present day. Puller and Knox get pulled into the middle of this highly sensitive arena while Rogers is trying to hunt down the people who harmed him so long ago.  Baldacci carefully weaves together the stories until they converge.

I have read most of Baldacci's books and enjoy his writing. But this time I think he has stepped too far out of reality to get a top rating. You certainly need a need a reality check to enjoy some of the fantasy that Baldacci has created. IMHO the book has also been poorly edited as there are a lot of things that happen, especially at very high levels of government, that are not explained by the end of the book - maybe a consequence of meeting tough publication deadlines. In previous books in the John Puller series, there was an interesting personal relationship between Puller and Knox which was hardly an issue in this one.

25 October 2016

Michael Connelly: The Wrong Side of Goodbye

Harry Bosch is back again - better than ever
Harry Bosch left the LAPD again before they could fire him over a minor infraction. Since then he has successfully sued for being illegally forced into retirement. Once again Bosch has set up his shingle as a private investigator, but at the same time he is working as an unpaid part-time detective in the town of San Fernando outside of Los Angeles.

In his private investigator role, he is invited to meet an aging aviation billionaire, Whitney Vance, who has a proposition - find out if he has any surviving offspring who could become the heir to his huge fortune. At age 18 Vance had a relationship with a young Mexican girl called Vibiana Duarte, but soon after becoming pregnant she disappeared and Vance had never seen her again.

Bosch quickly finds a lead that Vibiana had a son who was adopted out shortly after birth. This lead fades when Bosch finds that the son perished when he was shot down in a helicopter in Vietnam. As soon as he starts to find more leads Bosch realises that he is being followed by powerful parties who don't want any surviving relatives to be found. When his search takes a more dramatic and serious direction he turns for help and legal protection to his half-brother, Mickey Haller.

At the same time, Bosch gets tied up almost full time with a major case for the small police force of San Fernando - a serial rapist who gains entry by cutting through the screen door of victims' houses. The hunt for the "Screen Cutter" heats up when more victims are identified and a criminal profile suggests that it is only a matter of time before the rapist also becomes a killer.

Connelly showed his skills in weaving Bosch's investigatory skills between two totally different cases. It was certainly a change not to see him constantly doing battle with his police superiors. There is not much background about his personal life as his daughter Maddy is at college and only has a cameo role.

Over the last year, I have been revisiting and enjoying several of Michael Connelly's earlier books. IMHO this one stands out as one of the best he has written and maintains his top place in US crime fiction and showcased Connelly's skills in keeping this long-running series alive. We will certainly see a lot more of Harry Bosch in the future.

I was able to review this book now as it was published in Australia on 24 October 2016 and won't be released in the US until 1 November 2016. It certainly deserves to be in the bestsellers list leading up to the festive season.

31 July 2016

Joseph Flynn: The President's Henchman (Jim McGill series Book 1)

The first bloke wants to keep working
Jim McGill, (divorced father of 3, a former Chicago cop, and now a PI) is a first in the US - he is married to the first female president and has been nicknamed "The President's Henchman" (in Australia we would probably call him "The First Bloke"). Spouses of US Presidents normally play a supportive but passive role but Jim isn't the kind of man for such a role.

Jim first met his current wife, now the President, when as a PI he solved the murder of her first husband. Jim is not a political animal and wants to continue an active role in his PI business. This is not an easy thing to do, especially when his first case is to find out who is stalking a member of the White House press corps and another case involves the military where his wife is Commander in Chief.

Despite having to cope with the ever-present Secret Service and the tough as nails head of security, Jim takes on these cases which both turn out to have the potential to derail his wife's presidency.

There has been a lot of fantasy fiction centred around the US Presidency, mostly about terrorism and espionage. Flynn's take is a first one for me about the First Bloke and possibly pushes the bounds of fantasy a little too much for my credibility index. Nevertheless, it really may not be too much of a fantasy with the possibility of the first female US President. Just try to think of the things that Bill Clinton could do to avoid the boredom of being the First Bloke.

Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Sword

Espionage, betrayal, battle and, of course, some romance
Bernard Cornwell takes us with Captain Richard Sharpe into the midst of Wellington's Salamanca Campaign. While Sharpe again has his fair share of battle this adventure is more about espionage, betrayal and some romance.

Sharpe and his small group of riflemen come across  Colonel Laroux, a vicious cold-blooded French officer tasked with implementing a scorched earth environment to prevent the British advance to Salamanca. Sharpe nearly succumbs to wounds after a fight with Leroux. He is rescued by his friend Patrick Harper and after being slowly nursed back to health Sharpe sets out to get his vengeance.

While there is plenty of battle action most of the action centres around the relationships of a few key characters - Sharpe and Laroux's vendetta, Sharpe's romance with the beautiful La Marquesa (Helena), and aristocrat and gambler Lord Jack Spears. Lurking in the background is the mysterious "El Mirador" the spy who could have the answers to the success or otherwise of the campaign. Of course, Lord Wellington also plays a key role, this time possibly ruling the demise of Sharpe back to the ranks.

This is another great adventure in the always exciting and historically crafted Richard Sharpe series. There are many more adventures still to go to keep my adrenaline flowing and increase my knowledge of this fascinating time in military history.

John Jakes: California Gold: A Novel

The real California Gold didn't come from the goldfields
This story of California Gold is not about the goldfields, it is about the wealth that came when the gold rush was over.

James Macklin Chance started off being a wanderer who saw California as the gold at the end of the rainbow. His main incentive was a small travel promotional book that described the promised land in glowing terms. He crossed the country, endured great hardship but eventually got to California and to San Fransico, some 30 years after the peak of gold fever. The State and the City were virtually under the control of the railroad barons - the "Big Four," who were instrumental in building the Central Pacific Railroad who had a stranglehold on most business in the State.

After Chance tried to set up a ferry business in competition with a ferry owned by the railroad he was virtually run out of town by thugs employed by the Four. Again Chance left everything behind him and moved to Southern California, and inadvertently invested in some land with huge oil deposits. When he becomes a very rich man he also invests in citrus growing and water rights and gets even richer.

Wealth doesn't always bring him happiness, choosing an unhappy marriage to a very spoilt rich girl over happiness with an ambitious independent journalist/author. Eventually Chance returns to San Francisco to face up to his old rivals. He keeps in touch with Southern California and even gets involved with the early tumultuous days of Hollywood movie-making.

This is a good but very lengthy tale of the early days of California which brought home to me the really terrible aspects of untrammeled capitalism. John Jakes captured both the ambition and energy of California’s pioneers and how they would stop at nothing to achieve their personal and often very greedy objectives. I really liked the way that John Jakes authenticated his story by using some actual historical figures from these days and incorporated some major events, such as the devastating 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

30 July 2016

David Baldacci: The Winner

An entertaining fantasy thriller
During the drought season of new releases at the beginning of the calendar year I revisited a number of best-selling books that I had read many years ago. THE WINNER is the third standalone book by David Baldacci released in 1998 which immediately became a best-seller. It is still a pretty good read and an entertaining fantasy thriller.

The fantasy setting has dirt-poor single mother LuAnn Tyler winning about $100 million in the national lottery. The real fantasy is that LuAnn had been selected by a clever sociopath who could fix the winning numbers. LuAnn had been given a deadline to accept the offer and the sociopath ("Mr Jackson", a master of disguise) had arranged for her to be eliminated if she didn't accept on time.

Minutes before accepting LuAnn walks into her run-down trailer and finds her deadbeat partner has just been shot over a drug deal. She hits the assassin with a phone and thinks she has killed him. On the run, she calls Jackson and agrees to the deal. Jackson helps her with a disguise and a new identity and she and her daughter escape to live overseas with an understanding that she will never return to the USA. Over several years, Jackson invests the money very successfully and shares the gains with her so LuAnn becomes a very wealthy person.

Jackson reminds her that she should never come back to the US. But after 10 years LuAnn is sick of living overseas and desperately wants to return to the US. When she does this without Jackson's knowledge he is very angry and threatens to punish her and her daughter. The plot then twists and turns as the FBI and the IRS are searching for her in connection with the lottery scam and tax avoidance and Jackson tries to take retribution.

The only help comes from the mysterious Matthew Riggs who has contracted to build a security fence for her. Of course, a strong attraction builds between Riggs and LuAnn.

This is an entertaining fantasy thriller with an unbelievable and very dangerous sociopath pulling the strings. Baldacci went on to write many successful series but some of the early standalone ones are still among his best.

Danel Silva: The Black Widow

The reality face of ISIS terrorism
Daniel Silva has written his latest book in the outstanding Gabriel Allon series about the reality of ISIS terrorism. While he commenced writing this book before the ISIS-inspired bombings and shootings in Paris and Brussels he is not proud of his prescience that has made him even more aware of the dangers of murderous terrorism of the Islamic State.

Gabriel Allon is again back in Israel as an art restorer, delighting in the joys of parenthood of twins with his wife Chiara, and waiting for the unwelcome call to become the head of Israel's secret intelligence service. But as that time approaches events lure him back into the field when ISIS detonates a massive bomb in the Marais district of Paris devastating a Jewish centre and killing its principal Hannah Weinberg who was one of the key characters in "The Messenger". Once again Gabriel gets pulled into working with intelligence services throughout the world, even from Jordan, to defeat such evil.

The name of that evil calls himself "Saladin" after the 12th-century sultan who created a caliphate across the Middle East and Egypt. He is elusive and dangerous and will certainly strike again. Allon plans to insert an agent into his network, and again it will be a beautiful woman. At Gabriel's behest,  a young French/Israeli doctor, Natalie Mizrahi takes on a brave and dangerous role acting as a radicalised Moslem woman - a black widow who is looking for vengeance - to flush out "Saladin". Her role takes her from Paris to Syria to meet "Saladin" face to face and eventually to the US as a key part of his planned night of terror which could change the face of the world.

Silva takes us into the world of ISIS, its beliefs and brutal ways of life. He draws a chilling picture of "Saladin", a creation of radical Islam who is also a creation of recent events in the Middle East. He draws a picture of what can happen and actually did happen recently in Paris and other places.

This is another brilliant exciting and adrenaline packed thriller by Daniel Silva. I only wish that the topic was not so contemporary or chilling.

26 July 2016

Daniel Silva: The Unlikely Spy

Deception, Deception, Deception
I have read all of Silva's Gabriel Allon series but this is the first time I have read his debut novel about espionage and deception during the latter stages of WWII. Ken Follett covered a similar theme in "Eye of the Needle" and Jack Higgins in "Night of the Fox". Both of those books were brilliant but on balance, I think that "The Unlikely Spy" is the best.

We all know now that the Allied Forces were able to successfully confuse the D-Day landing location from Hitler. Thousands of deaths were possibly saved because Hitler concentrated his defensive forces around Calais and left the Normandy coast comparatively lightly defended. There are many stories of how British intelligence helped Hitler to choose the wrong invasion point - this is a brilliant fictional story of how this happened.

The main character is Alfred Vicary, a Professor of History who is drafted by an old friend, Winston Churchill to join MI5. Vicary takes to espionage like a duck to water following Churchill's adage that in war "truth is so precious that she should always be attended by a bodyguard of lies." Vicary has tracked down most German spies, imprisoned them and continues to send deceptive messages back to Germany. But he hasn't tracked down a handful of "sleeper" operatives sent over before the war by Kurt Vogel, one of Admiral Canaris's top spymasters.

One of these operatives is Catherine Blake, a beautiful ruthless psychopathic assassin, and spy, who remains inactive in London until a key part of the war - the preparations for the D-Day landings. Her assignment is to become romantically involved with Peter Jordan, an American engineer working on a top-secret D-Day project and report back on where the landings will take place.

There follows a tale of deception on a grand scale both with the spies and within MI5. Silva writes a masterly plot with fascinating characters on both sides of the action-packed battle. While some of the deceptions fail, the ultimate deception is not known until the very last pages. This is definitely a 5-star espionage story.

This is a wonderful debut novel written in 1996 by an author who has gone on to become a world-renowned best-selling author with his Gavriel Allon series about an Israeli art restorer, spy, and assassin. I look forward to reading the next book in this brilliant series, "The Black Widow", in the next few days.

14 May 2016

Catherine Ryan Hyde: Take Me With You

Heartwarming and emotional story
Every now and again I come across a story that will remain in my memory for a long time. It is heartwarming, emotional, and will make you laugh and cry.

August is a divorced high school science teacher who has lost his 19 year old son Phillip in a car accident. He is still grieving and as an alcoholic hasn't had a drink since his son's death. He plans a very special and personal summer tour of the main national parks of the US. A small plastic bottle in the glove box contains some of Phillip's ashes which he will scatter at key places during the tour.

His RV breaks down in a very small desert town and he is forced to rely on a small repair shop run by Wes (who is also an alcoholic). He is almost desperate because the cost of the repairs could force him to cancel the trip. When the vehicle is repaired Wes offers to waive the cost of the repairs if August takes his two boys on the tour. Wes is about to spend the summer in jail after several DUI convictions and the boys would otherwise spend the time in State care.

August reluctantly agrees to take the boys, 12-year-old Seth, and 7-year-old Henry, with him on the tour. At the start, his small part–Jack Russell terrier, Woody, is the only one delighted with the deal. Seth is a bright and motivated young boy who is excited at everything he sees. He is devoted to his younger emotionally disturbed brother who hasn't spoken for some years.

There follows a heartwarming story that grabs your attention and emotions as the two boys and August get to know one another and explore the wonders of the Western National Parks. They help August to cope with his grief as they develop a personal attachment to him which is far greater than the one to their father.

The main characters in this book will remain with you for a long time. August is always honest and frank with the two boys about his alcoholism and his loneliness. Seth is forever enthusiastic and caring for his younger brother. Henry slowly gains confidence and starts to speak again. The boys' relationship with their father doesn't improve as he lies to them again and again.

As an Aussie, one of the highlights of my world travels has been visiting the wonderful national parks in western USA. This book brought back so many memories of these unique places which the author describes so brilliantly.

I listened to this book as an audiobook, brilliantly narrated by Jeff Cummings. I highly recommend this book and will definitely read other books by this author. This was definitely 5 star material.

07 May 2016

Ward Larsen: Assassin's Silence

Another very good contemporary espionage thriller
David Slaton was a Kidon (Assassin) with Mossad. At the end of the previous book, Assassin's Game, he no longer exists. His wife Christine told him "If you kill this man in Geneva .... don't ever come back to me" - and he didn't. She now believes he is dead and is bringing up his son in DC as a single parent.

Slaton is well and truly alive and working (and hiding) in Malta as a stone mason. Unexpectedly an assault team attacks him but Slaton is able to kill one of them and escape. In the process he identifies the leader as someone he worked with in Mossad.

On the run, Slaton manages to get to Italy and Switzerland where he has a contact who will give him the financial independence to hunt down the assault team. The team gets to Zurich shortly after he sees his contact and Slaton again narrowly escapes with his life, but only after killing more of the team. As his funds become compromised it becomes increasingly apparent to him that the team is trying to implicate him in a serious plot. Because he is concerned that they may also be targeting Christine, he arranges for an old Mossad colleague to give her protection.

Halfway around the world at a remote airfield in the Amazon, another drama is unfolding where an unknown air cargo company purchases an almost derelict jet cargo plane. A team of mechanics is flown in to make it airworthy but on the first flight the plane dives out of control toward the ocean and wreckage, an oil slick and a body of one of the passengers are found.

Ward Larson's other major fictional character, investigator Jammer Davis, believes that the plane hasn't crashed. The worst scenario soon becomes apparent when it becomes clear that the plane is still flying and has the capability of being used for an act of pure terror.

While this book started a bit slowly for me it quickly developed into an action-packed contemporary espionage thriller, with two or three different plots coming together. The action spans the world and finishes up with a nail-biting finale.

 Anyone who read The Perfect Assassin will really appreciate the epilogue.

31 March 2016

David Baldacci: Absolute Power

An oldie but a goodie
During the drought season of new releases at the beginning of the calendar year I am revisiting a number of best-selling books that I had read many years ago. ABSOLUTE POWER is the first book that David Baldacci released in 1996 which immediately became a best-seller. It is still a pretty good and somewhat different thriller.

Luther Whitney has had a long-term career as a successful jewel thief and only burgles houses of the rich who can afford the loss. For some time, he has carefully planned a break-in to the house of a mega-rich man who has given his much younger beautiful trophy wife a lot of very expensive jewellery.  Luther knows that the owners plan to be away. The break-in goes well and he quickly overcomes the hi-tech security system. In the main bedroom, he stumbles on a walk-in safe with a mirror door which stores the wife's jewellery. Suddenly he hears several cars arriving and quickly hides in the cupboard which is big enough to have an easy chair. Imagine his surprise when he finds that the mirror is transparent and he can see everything happening in the bedroom but they can't see him.

Luther then sees the beautiful wife about to make love to an older, and familiar looking man. Their lovemaking gets violent and the man gets angry and tries to strangle the woman. In self-preservation, she stabs the man with a letter opener. His security detail rush into the room and shoot and kill her. The man passes out with too much alcohol. A woman comes into the room and takes charge as the security men clean up the room of any clues to the killer - fingerprints, vacuuming carpets and even digging out one of the bullets from the wall.

No one is aware that Luther has seen all of the action. He is scared stiff because he recognised that the man is the US President, the second woman his Chief of Staff and the security men are Secret Service. The story kicks along when Luther decides that he needs to tell someone about what actually happened, but at the same time protect himself from danger.

Baldacci has written a very different fictional thriller about the US President and the corruption of power. The plot has many twists and turns, some of the in the unbelievable category, but overall it was a compelling and entertaining piece of fiction.

07 March 2016

Pat Conroy: Prince of Authors

It was with great sadness that I learnt of the passing of Pat Conroy, who I considered was America's Prince of Authors. 

What always impressed me was Conroy's love for the scenic marshlands of coastal South Carolina. As an Aussie I have never been to SC but Conroy made sure that it is top of my list of places to visit. Conroy lived in Beaufort, SC because 'it's too beautiful to leave'. 

Some people considered Conroy's prose too flowery but I loved its lyrical and almost poetic style. 

To describe our growing up in the low country of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, 'There. That taste. That's the taste of my childhood.' 

Pat Conroy had a tortured family life which was an unending source of inspiration for his fiction, notably the novels “The Great Santini,” “The Lords of Discipline” and “The Prince of Tides”. He said:

One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family.

Recently I revisited Prince of Tides as an Audiobook narrated brilliantly by the late Frank Muller. In his introduction to the audiobook, Pat Conroy said that Muller "gave me ... a work of art". I strongly recommend that narration which turned a really great book into a minor masterpiece.

Another Conroy quote that I will always remember was:

Without music, life is a journey through a desert.

Conroy died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 70. I hope that he will be able to enjoy Beach Music wherever he is.

23 February 2016

Julie Thomas: Rachel's Legacy

The Secrets of the Letters
One day art historian Dr Kobi Voight from Melbourne is given a set of letters by his mother who had come to Australia with her German parents in the late 1940's. The letters, written in Hebrew and filled with beautiful sketches, are the reflections of a young Jewish woman to her young baby in 1942. His mother thought that they were old papers which her mother had acquired during her long life - but they are a key that unlocks the past for Kobi and eventually his mother.

The letters are a young mother's personal messages to her baby who she gave away to a German couple to save her baby's life. The author, who called herself "Ruby" was part of a resistance circle, the Red Orchestra, that worked to undermine Hitler's Germany. For protection, she made up names for her friends and her family, many of whom had been killed or sent to concentration camps. The letters stopped in 1942 when the resistance circle was broken by the Nazis. Ruby's fate was unknown.

While looking for a priceless piece of art by German Renaissance master artist Albrecht Dürer, Kobi finds a link to its ownership by the Horowitz family who we already know from KEEPER OF SECRETS. The journey of discovery will take Kobi to Germany and the US. It will expose him to the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, through to the present day and will eventually unravel the secrets of the letters.

When I read KEEPER OF SECRETS I didn't foreshadow a sequel, nor, at first, did the author. However, in her extensive research for the earlier novel Julie Thomas learned a lot about the Red Orchestra, a very brave resistance and spy organisation that worried the Nazis. Using that information and weaving it around the Horowitz family Thomas has written another notable, sometimes harrowing and often emotional  tale. If you enjoyed the earlier book you will certainly enjoy this one. 4.5 stars.

19 February 2016

John A Heldt: The Mine

Interesting and tender time-travel tale
I am a bit of a sucker for the fantasy of time-travel tales. It is interesting to see the different time vortexes (eg jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, using a special watch, and walking down special steps at the right time etc.), the different reactions to moving to another time period and the problems of whether to return home (if they can), and should they do things that might affect the course of history. With THE MINE John Heldt has started off a series of time-travel tales that are well written, and cleverly plotted to make the most of this fantasy genre.

In 2000 Joel Smith is a confident and adventurous college senior with no worries in the world. One day during a trip to Montana he sees a TV news item about a very rare significant planetary conjunction.  Soon after, following his keen interest in geology he breaks into a boarded-up abandoned mine, passes through a glowing passageway and when he comes out he finds himself in mid-1941, a time only a few months away from Pearl Harbour in days of swing music and a peacetime draft in anticipation of war.

After the initial shock of finding himself in the past, Joel quickly finds his way back to his hometown of Seattle by jumping a freight train. Down on his luck with no money, hungry and tired he helps an apparently rich young man, Tom, from being mugged. Tom takes him home and lets him live in a trailer in the garden. He also introduces him to his girlfriend Ginnie a lovely free-spirited young girl of 21. How would you react to meeting your beloved Grandmother in her youth?

Joel slowly settles down to life in the 1940's, becomes a star salesman in Tom's father's furniture store and makes a lot of money carefully betting on sporting events where he knows the outcome. He makes many friends, especially among Ginnie's circle of beautiful independent-minded young females. Then Joel meets Grace..... But then Pearl Harbour is just around the corner and the rare confluence of planets is about to happen again that may give him a chance to go back to where he belongs.

John Heldt is a great storyteller and seems to have had a lot of fun putting together a bunch of great characters in an unusual setting. I thoroughly enjoyed this fairly short, well-written, entertaining tale with frequently tender (but not explicit) relationships. I see that he has written 5 books in this series and look forward to joining Heldt's other time travellers in their adventures. 4.5 stars.

14 February 2016

Barry Lancet: Pacific Burn: A Thriller (A Jim Brodie Thriller)

Lancet's cross-cultural thrillers keep getting better
This is #3 in Barry Lancet's series featuring Jim Brodie, born in Japan to American parents, who went to Japanese schools and integrated Japanese society as well as a foreigner can. He has a great expertise in Japanese culture, history, and martial arts and shares his time as a dealer in Japanese art and antiques in San Francisco with running his late father's Tokyo-based private investigation firm.

Brodie is asked by a friend in the SFPD to help out at a murder scene in the Napa Valley to translate for a very frightened eight-year-old Japanese boy who saw his father murdered outside a major cultural centre in Napa. Brodie knows the victim because he is the son of renowned Japanese ceramic artist Ken Nobuki. With the help of a talented police artist, the young child is able to create a realistic sketch of the killer.

A few days later Brodie leaves City Hall with Ken Nobuki when a sniper attacks them from the top of the Asian Art Museum. Nobuki is hit in the head and left in a near-death induced coma in hospital. Then Nobuki's daughter Naomi, a journalist with a long term fixation on the "nuclear mafia" protecting SEPCO the owner of the damaged Fukushima nuclear power station, comes into the killer's sights.

When Brodie travels to Tokyo he finds that he is also targeted by the killer and it becomes clear that there is a contract out on the Tobuki's and on Brodie. It is not clear if the contract has been taken out by the nuclear mafia or if there is a more personal connection. The Japanese assassin, nicknamed the "Steam Walker", has an unblemished record and martial arts skills to overcome even those of Jim Brodie.

This is a fairly short but very fast moving thriller, moving from the US to Japan and showcasing Lancet's deep understanding of Japanese life and culture. I was impressed by the short chapters which increased the pace of the action.

Tokyo Kill was better than the debut novel Japantown and this one goes a step further to enhance Lancet's undoubted skills as a writer of cross-cultural thrillers. It once again centres on many aspects of  Japanese culture and behaviours. My only reservation was that I did get a bit lost with some of the US security connections, plus the need for Brodie to once again to use Japenese mythology to give the tale more authenticity. It was a short, well-written and fast-paced page-turning thriller with a difference. 4.5 stars.

My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book for review.

10 February 2016

Stephen Coonts: The Art of War

One of the best Grafton/Carmellini adventures
Stephen Coonts has written many military/political suspense thrillers featuring Jake Grafton and his sidekick Tommy Carmellini. When I read the synopsis I thought that Coonts had taken this series too far, but I was very wrong as he manages to make an otherwise unbelievable plot almost believable and authentic and has the two main characters chasing down the Chinese dragon threatening the doors of the US.

The basics of the plot are that the Chinese, with a small navy, want to be able to dominate the South China Sea but this will never happen with the predominant naval strength of the US. The scenario has the Chinese smuggling a nuclear weapon underwater into the midst of the largest naval base in the US in Norfolk, Virginia, with plans to destroy much of the US fleet when all nuclear aircraft carriers are scheduled to be in port during December. This would be another Pearl Harbour which will leave the US without world naval power for years. The Chinese hope that the explosion would be blamed on a nuclear bomb accident on board one of the carriers.

As the Chinese plans unfold, at the same time there are a series of assassinations of key US security officials, starting with the head of the CIA. While he is not next in line, the President chooses Jack Grafton to be interim head of the CIA. Grafton loses no time in starting to track down the killer and soon realises that he could become a target himself and gets his pit-bull, Tommy Carmellini, to handle his security. Things go from bad to worse when Air Force One is taken down by an EMP on a drone. At first, the Russians are implicated in the attack and Tommy is sent off to make contact with a Russian contact to find the truth.

All in all, this is a closely plotted thriller that seems to defy believability but has sufficient potential authenticity to overcome my worries about reading outlandish thrillers. Grafton and Carmellini shine again but never get close. Carmellini is still one of the best operatives in this kind of action-packed thriller, and this time the action gets very much up close and personal for him. Grafton is always cool and collected and is able to work well with the various security agencies and the White House to get things done.

One of the key elements of  Coonts' writing is his ability to write about the administration of government without getting involved in political issues as many other authors of this kind of thriller. As usual, Coonts includes some nail-biting military action which is a signature of most of this series. Other best-selling authors have covered similar ground with nuclear weapons being smuggled into the US by the Russians and Islamic terrorists but this is the first time I have seen the Chinese involved.

All in all, I really enjoyed this page-turning and adrenaline churning thriller and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of this kind of genre. 4.5 stars.

22 January 2016

Tom Clancy: Patriot Games (A Jack Ryan Novel, Book 1)

The start of the Jack Ryan saga
It's interesting to revisit a key bestseller that you first read over 30 years ago. This is the first in the Tom Clancy's long-running series about Jack Ryan, which has even been continued after Clancy's recent death via the pen of Mark Greaney.

Jack Ryan is visiting London on vacation with his eye surgeon wife Catherine and 4-year-old daughter Sally when they find themselves close to a terrorist attack by the Ulster Liberation Army on a Rolls Royce driving through St James Park. After the terrorists have blown up the front of the car with a grenade they start moving in firing machine guns, intent on capturing the people in the back of the car. In seconds, Ryan tackles one of the attackers and kills another but is seriously injured.  He didn't realise until later that the occupants of the car are the Prince and Princess of Wales and their infant son.

This fantasy opening makes Ryan and his family close friends to the Royal Family and the Queen gives him an honorary Knighthood for his bravery. While the captured Irish terrorist Sean Miller is given life imprisonment, with the help of the ULA he escapes when being moved to a high-security prison. Miller vows that he will eliminate Ryan and capture the Prince.

The rest of the book details Ryan's determination to find Miller and defeat the ULA and to do this he reluctantly accepts an invitation to work at the CIA. Miller pops up again in the US, targeting Catherine and Jack. Later on, he continues his vendetta against Ryan and the Prince with a stunning bloody gunfight at the end.

I enjoyed going back to the start of the Jack Ryan saga and to read Clancy when he was at the top of his form. Some aspects of the book are dated (for example, terrorism was considered to always have political motives) and technology is fairly primitive. My main reservation is that Clancy's writing style is pretty ponderous and detailed. In those days, we expected blockbuster novels to be 800 pages but now we would expect this kind of story to be a compelling 400-500 page-turner.

My other reservation is Clancy's inclusion of real people in the plot in fictitious situations, especially the Royal Family. He also has poor understanding of Royal protocols - calling the Duke of Edinburgh "My Lord" and the Prince "Your Highness".

Many of you will have seen the movie of the book starring Harrison Ford and Anne Archer. I suggest that you read the book because the finale when Ryan finally catches up with Miller is very different and shows Clancy's forethought in making Ryan the kind of character he becomes in later books.

As pointed out by several reviewers the conversion to an e-book has not been done well with no breaks between different sections of the action making some parts difficult to follow.

20 January 2016

Mark Gimenez: The Absence of Guilt (A. Scott Fenney Book 3)

Very contemporary terrorist/legal thriller
The FBI uncovers an ISIS plot to detonate a bomb that would kill thousands of spectators in the Cowboys Stadium in Dallas during the Super Bowl.  They arrest the apparent terrorists and the President goes on television and proclaims that the terrorists have been beaten.

Newly appointed US District Judge A. Scott Fenney is faced with a commitment hearing for the accused terrorists. Things are not straightforward as the FBI doesn't have any viable evidence of the plot, especially against a radical Muslim cleric Omar al Mustafa reputed to be their leader. Judge Fenney is asked to detain Mustafa and the followers arrested with him until after the Super Bowl which is three weeks away. If there is insufficient evidence Scott must set someone free who is probably the most dangerous man in Dallas.

Many of you who have read the previous books in the series will remember Scott as a young, ambitious and rich lawyer with a trophy wife who successfully defends a black drug addict prostitute on a murder charge. He loses his career, his wife and his riches and when the prostitute overdoses he adopts the prostitute's daughter Pajamae and brings her to live with his daughter Boo. Pajamae and Boo become close friends. They are similar in age, go to the same school and both dearly love A. Scott Fenney. The terrorist affair will affect both of them for the rest of their lives.

Scott is also scheduled to judge on the legal validity of Presidential executive orders that affect millions of illegal Mexican immigrants. This judgement is brought much closer to home when Scott becomes emotionally involved with a beautiful FBI agent with Mexican parents who is charged with protecting him during the terrorist case.

This is an action-packed legal thriller which will keep you on the edge of your seat to the very last moment. Mark Gimenez has taken on two very difficult and controversial topics - human rights in the struggle against terrorism and the legal status of millions of Mexican immigrants in the US. In doing so he highlights the different perception of the issues from a public and legal perspective.

Once again Gimenez has written an intelligent, sensitive and cleverly plotted action-packed legal thriller with plenty of twists and turns. A. Scott Fenney is one of Mark Gimenez' best characters - a man with a conscience which is not destined to bring him the greatest happiness.

18 January 2016

Adrian McKinty: Rain Dogs (Detective Sean Duffy)

Another locked door mystery during "The Troubles"
Adrian McKinty is a master storyteller of thrillers set in Northern Ireland. This book is #5 of his splendid fictional representations of  "The Troubles" in Northern Island in the 1980's through the eyes of Detective Inspector Sean Duffy, a Catholic policeman in the predominantly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary.

Duffy is a first class detective whose character is flawed by what is happening around him. One day he will be chasing common criminals and the next day he will be heartbroken when he is co-opted for riot duty and faces mobs throwing bricks and petrol bombs. His car is never safe and he checks for a bomb every time he drives it.

This time, Duffy is faced with a locked-door mystery similar in many ways to one that he faced a couple of years back. A female English journalist reporting on a visit by a team of Scandinavian businessmen is found dead having fallen/jumped/been pushed from the top of Carrickfergus castle. At first sight, it looks like suicide but Duffy isn't satisfied. The puzzle is that the journalist entered the castle the previous evening and it had been locked tight during the night and there appears to be no way that any killer could have got away.

Then a seemingly disconnected disaster happens when a senior policeman is killed by a bomb hidden under his car. Duffy had great respect for him and grapples with trying to work out the reason for the bomb.

McKinty shows off his storytelling skills when he includes a couple of cameo appearances by Killian who in later life stars in a very different but similarly enthralling thriller FALLING GLASS. Killian is not your average Irish thug, he was brought up as a Parvee, the Irish equivalent of a gypsy, and despite his violent background is a thug with a heart.

RAIN DOGS is the latest in this compelling series set against authentic background of "The Troubles". All of this series are highly recommended to discerning readers of police thrillers.

15 January 2016

Sidney Sheldon: If Tomorrow Comes

To Catch a Thief
Beautiful but somewhat naive Tracy Whitney is set up for attempted murder and is given a 15 year sentence in an escape-proof penitentiary. Tracy soon shows her personal strengths against powerful and dangerous prisoners determined to take her over.

After a miraculous pardon Tracy is no longer naive and sets out to destroy the influential and powerful people who put her in jail. Using her beauty and native cunning by the middle of the book she quickly achieves her objectives. Then she is faced with the rest of her life being tarnished by her prison record, until she makes contact with someone highly recommended by her best friend and mentor from her prison cell.

Tracy then starts her second career as a jewel thief, mixing with the cream of society and only stealing from those that can afford the loss. She soon confronts Jeff Stevens, an irresistible rogue and con artist, who frequently beats her in taking from the same targets. There are shades of "To Catch a Thief" in the plot.

This is classic Sidney Sheldon with fast moving page-turning action and a strong-willed heroine. Sheldon is quoted as saying "I try to construct them so when the reader gets to the end of it, he or she has to read just one more chapter. It's the technique of the old Saturday afternoon serial: leave the guy hanging on the edge of the cliff at the end of the chapter."

The book is over 30 years old but the storyline and writing are not dated. Highly recommended for someone who likes books about strong willed females facing impossible odds.