Category Archives: Thrillers

Review: Brock Steele – Sphere (Alex Bloodfire)

If you took the Jason Bourne books and mixed them with the movie Total Recall (the original one, with Arnie), you’d get this book.

This is not to say it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read. It does hold together in its world, mostly, by a thin logic. The issue I have is that Brock Steele is 90% reactive and is only meaningfully proactive in the last 30 pages-ish. There isn’t a lot of tension – he doesn’t really ever seem to be in real danger – but there is a whole lot of driving around. We all know how I feel about that.

Brock Steele, six months out from an attack by persons unknown with a baseball bat, and three months out from a medically-induced coma, is working as a trainer at a gym, but doesn’t remember anything prior to being in the hospital. From the tenor of things, it doesn’t exactly seem like he’s been trying all that hard to figure out why he was attacked or who he is. He’s living a life, hates his boss, has a crush on a young woman named Sarah, and in general seems rather ordinary.

One night at a party, someone spikes his drink. Instead of collapsing at the party, he runs out into the night, collapsing there instead. This seems to be the catalyst for the rest of the book, and his quest to figure out who he is.

Steele’s being followed by some shady characters as he winds his way from place to place, often injuring himself along the way, either by fighting or by banging his head or fists against walls during nightmares, which was rather odd.

Along the way, Sarah is fired for trying to help Steele get his medical records – a doctor hilariously tells him that he is not entitled to his own records, which made me roll my eyes – and wouldn’t you know it, she’s a computer hacker. Steele’s buddy Ty, whom he does not remember, is a prolific car thief, getting them various rides so the three of them can drive all over the place. It turns out that the people after him want a thumb drive that apparently has some incriminating information on it. What’s that information? Who knows?

Steele roams around and speaks to a bunch of different people, but never seems to get any significant information until someone late in the book lays it out for him and the reader. At the end, Steele does the infodump duties by suddenly remembering everything and explaining what’s on the drive and why it’s bad news for the bad guy.

Eventually, he meets the bad guy and they duke it out over a bridge Steele’s been avoiding. He suddenly remember why that is, too, and just when he has the bad guy on the ground, instead of finishing him, he goes over to retrieve a gun he knocked out of the bad guy’s hand, setting things up for another book.

Overall, I’m giving it 2.5 stars, rounded up to 3, because internally, it’s at least consistent, if not always believable.

Thanks to BooksGoSocial and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Every Hidden Thing (Ted Flanagan)

Worster, Mass EMT Thomas Archer and his partner have a problem. It isn’t the woman who has just delivered a baby who is respiratory distress, it isn’t even he woman’s boyfriend. The real problem is Eamon Conroy, a corrupt and sadistic cop Archer helped send to prison years ago.

Conroy is the fixer for John O’Toole, mayor of Worster from a prominent political family, who has his sites set on the Governor’s mansion. His issue is greasing the right palms, and getting Conroy to take care of other problems in a more violent way. That includes Archer now, given he and his partner’s witness of the baby scene.

Archer’s young son has a brain tumor, and one of the places they stop on their rounds is at a church where a young woman lies in a persistent vegetative state, while her mother stands by her, convinced that the power of god flows through her daughter. Many people come to pray in front of the woman in her be, seeing her through a window on the opposite wall, where a bench sits, ready for them to kneel. Archer and the mom have a number of conversations through the book, and at the end there’s a gigantic gathering where people can come to ask for miracles/to be blessed/and whatever other stuff religion does for people who believe. I’m not a fan off fraudsters and hucksters, so these parts had me rolling my eyes.

Luckily, the majority of the book is taken up by Archer trying to avoid crossing paths with Conroy.

We then switch gears to the POV of a reporter, who is going to be laid off not terribly far down the road. Her editor tells her it’s the best he could get for her, and she decides to go out with a bang, by investigating the new gubernatorial candidate, his shady deals, and his employ on Conroy. She faces some real danger, as an old white woman going to a rather rough part of town to talk to the woman who gave birth. She makes it out of there, but not before her car is set on fire by the crowd.

There’s a separate subplot about a man who is obviously a QAnon kind of nutjob, ascribing all sorts of ills in the world on Democrats, liberals, activists, and of course the LGBTQI+ category. He’s further indoctrinated by his father in law, and his father in law and what seems to be a council of sorts for the local militia have a job for him: go to Worster and assassinate someone. I found this the least compelling o the various storylines, not because it’s unrealistic, but because crazy seems to be his only character trait.

As we return to the main story, things stat getting out of hand and O’Toole is becoming impatient with Conroy. Conroy gets harder into his work, offering Archer’s partner enough money to put toward a new house for his family. Archer continues to be pressed by his life seemingly spinning out of control.

The end is….the end is good, and matches nicely with the events of the book. There is a loose string here and there, but nothing to make the ending less believable, and I kind of welcome that from time to time, since most writers seem to think everything has to be 100% in typing up everything that has happened in a book. In books like this, there’s too much ambiguity to do that, so like a lot of life, people wring what they can from it.

A very solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Crooked Land Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: A Fire in the Night (Christopher Swann)

Nick Anthony has retreated to his cabin in the middle of nowhere after the death of his wife. Retired now, he whiles away his time at the cabin in peace.

That peace is shattered when a local deputy appears at his door to tell him that his estranged brother and his sister-in-law have been killed in a house fire. He’s shocked, of course, but not as shocked as he is when he finds out he has a niece, Annalise – now on the run and the primary suspect.

Annalise, for her part, is running toward her uncle, as her father told her to, in possession of a flash drive she was told to take. She has no idea what’s on that drive, but bad guy Cole does: he and his mercenary teams are on her trail.

There’s a flashback that doesn’t make a lot of immediate sense, but be patient, the significance of it will be revealed.

Nick, though, is not just a mild-mannered professor. He’s an ex spy, with skills that Cole and his gang of baddies don’t know about. When Annalise arrives, Nick sets about trying to build a relationship with her, and she eventually thaws. To read the drive, they have to go to a public library. Cole sends a crew to snatch them up, because there’s some kind of whizbang thing that alerts when the drive is accessed. Highly improbable, but it’s a staple these days of thrillers than some hacker can break into just about anything, so just roll with it.

There’s a big showdown at the cabin, of course, and the final fight scene is quite enjoyable – that fight alone gets five stars from me.

The ending is what you might think and expect.

A solid four out of five stars, and good for a day (or weekend if you’re not a straight-through reader) of escapism.

Thanks to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Count to Three (TR Ragan)

A parent’s worst nightmare: their child is missing from her school, picked up by someone who looks just like them.

That’s how Count to Three begins: Tinsley Callahan is collected from kindergarten by a woman who looks just like Dani Callahan, her mother. Dani is devastated, as one might expect. While her husband insists they give up and move on, Dani refuses. Five years later, the husband is an ex, Dani is a private investigator, and she still keeps the case file on Tinsley open, even while she works on other cases.

She doesn’t do this alone: the original detective on the case is now a friend, and they chat every so often, about Tinsley, or when Dani’s trying to find out something for a client. She also has an assistant named Quinn, who wants to be a PI because he mother vanished some years ago, and she carries that around with her.

In the current timeframe, Ali Cross is kidnapped in broad daylight, dosed with some kind of drug, and tossed into a van. The only witness is 12 year old Ethan, a local “bad kid” who lives with his mom in a rundown trailer. Ethan has an unfortunate habit of lying, getting in trouble, and generally being someone who others ignore.

Ethan hires them to look into Ali’s disappearance, something the local cops have written off as a runaway, since she has run off before (not not really).

Dani and Quinn go to work, finding out everything they can about Ali – social media! – and eventually team up with Ali’s mom to work out strategy, make flyers, and figure out if someone had access to the house (contractors, and so on).

Eventually, they track down Ali’s boyfriend, getting a few minutes to talk to him before something really unfortunate happens.

To keep the place afloat, Dani is also working a case for a woman who insists that someone is coming into her house and rearranging her furniture. This is the comedy relief in what is a very dark book. If you have issues reading about molestation, child sexual abuse, or physical torture, you might want to skip this one.

As Dani and Quinn get closer to finding the perp, the perp is busy throwing obstacles in their way, and threatening Ali’s family if she doesn’t behave herself in her captivity.

Dani’s ex shows up, telling her again to move on, and she tells him off in a way that really gave me a smile. That smile got bigger when she just kicked him out.

The end rushes at us, as it often does in thrillers, and everything’s tied up with a bow on top.

My only real issue with this book is this: Dani and Quinn are running around, poking into this, and they KNOW that the perp is both out in the wild and dangerous, given that he’s killing more people. But they take NO precautions with 12 year old Ethan, even to the point of Quinn leaving him alone on a corner after they’ve been hanging flyers. There’s no sense in this except to make it another plot point, which it does. It just made me angry.

Other than that, it’s a good read. I’d have given it five stars except for the Ethan thing. Four stars instead.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: Firepower (John Cutter)

We know the story: ex-Special Ops guy trying to fulfill his dying pal’s wish runs into trouble and uses his brains and his brawn to do it.

Vince Bellator is the ex-SpecOps person in question, and while hiking in the woods and minding his own business, he encounters three white supremacists who should have stayed in bed that day instead of challenging him. When I realized Bellator would be punching nazis and white supremacists, I automatically gave it another star. as I am a huge fan of that.

Bellator realizes that there’s lot more going on here that your usual idiots playing nazi in the woods, so decides to infiltrate the group. He does this, and begins gathering intel, determined that this particular group of nazis will be taken down. His problem, once in, is how to get the information out.New members are scrutinized very carefully, and no one is allowed to keep weapons on their person except those charged with security.

Along the way, Bellator finds an unlikely companion within the compound who is more than she seems. They realize that these nazis are arranging a large-scale, coordinated attack on some government officials – and now they have to stop it.

I won’t go further than that for spoilery reasons, except to say that I bet Bellator wished he were Spider-Man crawling up the face of a cliff at a point late in the book.

There’s quite a bit of suspended disbelief required, but I think that there’s at least a little in every book, no matter the genre. Fans of this kind of book will enjoy it, no doubt.

Four out of five stars from me.

Thanks to Lume Books and NetGalley for the reading copy.

The Executive Order (David Fisher)

If you’re a trumpette or a far right conservative,you’ll hate this book and give up when the failures of trump’s administration are sorted out in the chapters following the initial terrorist attacks that open the book. You probably should not bother.

If that sort of factual relation doesn’t mess with your worldview, this is a middling superguy/journalist story that’s a fair read.

The book opens with attacks on the Lincoln Tunnel in NY, a dam in Louisiana, and the explosion of the USS Arizona in Hawaii. Deaths? Too many to count. The response of the 2024 President Ian Wrightman: in a nod to fighting terrorism, a rollback of some civil liberties. The slow erosion of rights continues to creep into the country until finally it’s simply a fascist government, with the Constitution basically suspended and neighbors encouraged to spy and report on one another, a la 1984.

Rollie Stone, paraplegic former SpecOps and now journalist, is following all this, wondering what is happening to his country. He writes stories about the attacks and then about the targeting of a house in Detroit that is blasted to pieces and everyone inside killed. As it turns out, the people inside that house were innocent, and the government has just murdered a bunch of people on US soil.

The book proceeds to follow Rollie as he watches the tightening of the country, to the point where the electronic newspaper he works for is shut down, as all media now belongs to the government and reports only good news. Rollie then becomes a rebel, fighting to bring information about a cyber hijacking of an airliner to someone who will listen. The remainder of the book is about that quest and the dangers of a fascist state.

But for complete incompetence and greed, we could have been in the process of becoming that fascist country under the former guy’s term. The term creeping fascism exists for a reason, and anyone who has studied WWII, or Germany’s descent into fascism will recognize the steps outlined in this book. This may hit close to home for some people, so be advised that there is also a televised hanging of “traitors” described in this book.

As I read, I wondered if the author was putting in easter eggs on purpose, or just coincidentally. The current President is Ian Wrightman – I, Wrightman – I, right man, as in the right man for the job. I also wondered if the author is a Dick Francis fan, since Rollie calls the two Feds sent to round him up as Dick and Francis. There are other things along these same lines.

I wasn’t bothered by a lot in this book, but one of the things that did bother me was Rollie not discovering who was actually behind this lockdown of the country earlier. It bugged me that we got a “It was so and so all along!” in the end, when it’s clear as day earlier in the book who it is.

If you can handle the mix of fact and fiction, it’s a good enough read.

Overall, three out of five stars.

Thanks to St Martin’s Press and NetGalley for the reading copy.

Review: The Export – The Export #1 (JK Kelley)

I’m not above popcorn style spy/thriller novels. I understand that sometimes, you just need a James Bond-type to fly around the world, being invincible and solving puzzles that apparently no one else is capable of solving. At least, that’s how Matt Christopher, ex-FBI agent and current international man of mystery (no offense, Austin Powers) strikes me.

 

When the book opens, we’re at a base camp at Mt Everest, in a tent where a man and woman have just finished having sex. MattĀ  makes his entrance, suffering from altitude sickness and jet lag. The man from the first chapter has an ice axe embedded in his skull and Matt sort of barges into the investigation, directing local law enforcement to do this or that. Then, he bids them farewell, and he’s jetting off (first class, of course) to London.

OK, fine. We’re to believe that Matt is now an independent contractor for the US government, because he can tell when people are lying or read a crime scene or a witness or anything else (he’s described at one point as a tracker, which was a little confusing and weird). So he flies around the world, setting up meets and reviewing evidence and interviewing people – you know, the things that local law enforcement could probably do without him.

In London, he meets up with a friend who works for British intelligence, and they’re hunting for a guy who slashes womens’ throats – and all the victims have been members of Parliament. Naturally, Matt swoops in and figures out whodunnit. Then: he’s off again.

We get more descriptions of how he’s flying from one place to another. There was a lot of that in this book. I have to say that I don’t care at all how characters get from point A to point B unless there’s something significant about it. Is thee a bomb on the plane? Is the bus going to be hijacked? Does the car have a tracking device on it?

Stick Matt on a plane, send him somewhere, point him to a case. He figures out the bad guy, jets off. Repeat this for what seems to be a dozen times in this book. The bad guys are the type who are immediately identifiable to the reader and who like to confess. Except the beautiful, sexy Russian spy who kills someone close to Matt. She’s all over the place, a superspy, just like him, skating just out of reach.

 

Until the end – the final scene in the book, which I’m going to spoil for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Russian is found in a Thai tourist resort – just like Matt forecast with his spidey sense. She’s meeting Matt’s best friend (there’s stuff earlier in the book where this guy is at the house where the woman Matt is close to is murdered; they are lifetime pals), and that friend meets her on the beach in the dunes to set her up for Matt, who comes up behind her and shoots her in the head. The two of them drag her into the dunes, and then? They’re off to the bar, which is not terribly far away, to have a cold one and toast their friend. That just seems a little psychopathic to me.

There are a number of things that this book needs or needs to eject. It really and desperately needs an editor. There’s no need to pile all of these escapades into the same book instead of just picking one or even three and fleshing those out. The good guy doesn’t have to take down all the bad guys in a single book.

All the unnecessary travel stuff can also go. Most of them don’t matter to the story and do nothing but serve as filler.

Within the first five pages, Matt says he had spent some time in a “hyperbolic chamber” to charge up his red blood cells because apparently flying to Kathmandu from Qatar to sale Everest was a spur of the moment thing. While this book may be a “hyperbolic chamber”, it is a hyperbaric chamber that is used for the medical purpose Matt describes.

When in London, Matt decides to help his pal Charlie (of British intelligence) and it is described thusly: “It took a split second for Matt to agree to help, and Charlie knew that meant it would be in any way he could. That was his friend’s Motus Operandi, his “M.O.””

Two things: people know what an MO is, and they don’t need the Latin. Also, if you are going to use the Latin, it is “modus operandi” and it doesn’t need to be capitalized.

I wasn’t looking terribly closely at things after the first dozen chapters. I skimmed through much of the rest, seeing the pattern (Matt flies somewhere -> crime -> superdude solves it -> goodbye -> repeat), and skipping forward. At no point – even when Matt’s been hit in the head and hauled off – is there ever a question that he will get out of the situation, and no indication that he’s even perturbed or worried about it. There’s no real tension here.

If you need something fast, don’t mind what could be described as serials pushed together into a single book, and want an indestructible good guy (who does bad things, like kill people), take it for a ride.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to JK Kelly and NetGalley for the review copy

Review: Mastermind, Blackwood/Cray #1 (Andrew Mayne)

I seem to recall reading something that had Theo Cray in it, but clearly, I’m thinking of someone else, as the series featuring Cray is not something I’ve read. Likewise, I have not read any books in the Jessica Blackwood series.

That said, this books, labeled as Blackwood/Cray #1 seems to be a new series where thy will be together to investigate oddball things that may happen – like a mysterious blackout in NYC that appears to be swirling with electric energy and which also cut out power to almost everyone in the bubble and caused electronic devices to stop working.

We get a scene of Cray being liberated from a jail in a foreign land, and it appears Jessica Blackwood possesses skills ranging from hand o hand combat to forging paperwork. It’s the latter that allows her to get Cray out of the hellhole he’s in.

Of course, there’s a catch to all this: the FBI, for whom Blackwood works, needs him and Blackwood to look into the phenomenon they’ve taken to calling The Void. Blackwood believes it’s the work of that typical fictional villain, Michael Heywood, AKA Warlock who seems to have the world at his fingertips and who managed to escape prison during a transfer.

What follows is a romp around the globe, with clues coming from the oddest places: a zoo where chimpanzees have been stolen. A “research facility” in the Chernobyl zone, where the men are practically zombies, but ordinarily healthy otherwise, no matter what ailment(s) they may have had before..

Together, the no nonsense, hyperfocused Blackwood, and the talks before he thinks Theo Cray race around the globe, looking into odd incidents, thefts from datacenters, and two more Voids in Seoul and Singapore. In their way: people paid off by Heywood, and eventually a face to face with Heywood, who demands Cray also be there, despite Cray not having any direct connection to Heywood, so Heywood can detail the ways the he is better than Cray..

As far as stories go, it isn’t too bad. There’s enough suspense that then turns into a “the clock is ticking” story when the threat of yet another Void is hanging over their heads to keep things moving along. I did like the banter between Blackwood and Cray, and there is the typical internecine fighting between federal agencies, both of which ring true. The ending is a turn the tables type, and that works here in the universe of this book. The writing is good, although some of the backstory drop-ins felt a little forced. That does not really break the narrative, however, and while some of them were rather long – necessary for some of the technical stuff that most people don’t know or with which they are not familiar – but I am not dinging it for this.

A solid four stars.

Thanks to Thomas & Mercer and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Levi’s War, Horowitz #3 (Julie Thomas)

I’m of two minds about Levi’s War, the closing chapter of the Horowitz trilogy. I wanted to like it much more than I did, and I wanted it to be able to stand on its own, and it doesn’t. I wouldn’t say it’s a crushing disappointment, as it is not, but neither is it a rip-roaring tale of a fictional Jew (the Levi of the title) trained as a spy and assassin (more on this later), who by sheer happenstance lands in Hitler’s inner circle during WWII.

I get that historical fiction, and especially historical spy/thriller tales, need a lot of suspension of disbelief and a big helping of coincidence, but this really strained my willingness to remain in the book. But, as my power cut off during a storm, and remained off for over two hours, and having already read the other books on my Netgalley shelf, I didn’t have much else to do.

As might be clear from the above, it’s an easy enough, although rather pedestrian, read, and I did complete it during the outage. It is the third book in a trilogy, and this time, I’d say that reading the first two would have been a huge help to keep track of who everyone was, and who was related to whom. Completely denoting it as a third book in that way would have saved Ms Thomas the need to insert explanatory passages from the first two books, and would have saved us having to read them – multiple times throughout. While I know some people minded how the story was told – a young, 1945 Levi tells his story to a camera, the film is found during archival digitizing, and the immediate, extended, and descendant family watching that film – but this was fine with me. I didn’t care for just how dry – almost clinically dry – it was.

If you’re coming to this book and its weighty subject expecting to find a deeply emotional, resonant work set during one of the most shameful eras of human existence, you won’t find it here. There isn’t anyone in this book who seemed to be passionate about anything at all, except for Levi when playing the piano. His relationship with a childhood friend and a young Luftwaffe officer was mundane, and it wasn’t love that occupied Levi’s thoughts, but textbook dry, junior high muddling. Since homosexuality was criminalized, I’d have expected much more about how Levi and Erik evaded detection, since it’s clear Levi spends many nights – consecutive nights – at Erik’s place, something that surely would have generated gossip.

Beyond that, the book is a rather straightforward account of what Levi did during the war. He leaves Berlin, bound for London via Sweden, but gets held up by a Nazi at a checkpoint. Now, Levi at this point if just Levi, the musician. In this scene, he may as well be James Bond: the Nazi’s Ruger jams not once, but twice when he tries to shoot Levi. Levi needs only to step into the Nazi as the latter is about to pistol whip him and throw what amounts to one punch, which slams the man against a wall an knocks him out. Then Levi picks up the gun and flees with his belongings into the woods, magically making it to London despite having no military or survival training.

All the right doors open for Levi when they need to, and all the right people appear for him when the plot needs it. He works as a banker until total war breaks out, at which point he is placed in a camp with other refugees. He’s eventually tapped by the British to be a spy – and not just any spy: a spy whose purpose is to get into the circle of high level Nazis in order to send information back to the Allies. The British train him in less than a year, and he’s off to Berlin, to work in Goebbels’ office, translating English newspaper articles. He’s tapped to play piano at a party, eventually making it up the Nazi food chain until hes sent to play or Hitler himself. In doing so, he manages to send back quite a it of material, because the Nazis apparently don’t keep their mouths shut about organizational issues and/or chitchat when junior officers are present.

Levi eventually leaves Germany with Erik, who has recently been snuck out of Dachau worse for wear. They decide that Italy is where they should go, to fight with the partisans there, and that’s just what they do, traveling at night and hiding out during the day – something Levi does again later, on his own, and in neither instance is there any threat to being discovered. There’s no tension on those pages or many others in this book.

The Allies win, Levi is debriefed, and off he goes to live his life, with his relatives only finding out the story all those years later, watching the film. The ending sputters out a little, with a genealogy search that says flat out the circle of the Horowitz tale is over, instead of using a more metaphorical image to end on.

It’s decent enough if you’re casting around for something to read and have a few hours to do so. But if you haven’t read the first two books, just a warning that you’ll see the same information presented over and over because you weren’t there for the first two.

Two and half stars, rounded to three, and that only because the story, in its own framework, held itself together to the end.

Thanks to Harper360 and NetGalley for the review copy.

Hunting the Hangman (Howard Linskey)

An engrossing, novelized version of the plot to assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the so-called “final solution” envisioned by Nazi Germany, by Czech partisans trained by the British.

Knowing their survival after the assassination attempt – regardless of whether said assassination attempt was successful or not – was unlikely, the two Czechs go forward with their training and the attempt in any case, as the sacrifice of their lives may save many, many others.

The training sequences are the weakest, but only because the other events in the book – including glimpses of the Hangman’s family life – are much more fascinating. This is not a detraction from the book, however, which is a great fictional rendition of factual events read for anyone interested in WWII, the Holocaust, or Nazi Germany.

Solid five out of five read.

Thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for the review copy.