Over 550 book reviews with full author links

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.