Category Archives: Thrillers

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.

Review: Heartbreak Bay – Stillhouse Lake #5 (Rachel Caine)

This is the fifth (and now final, with the author’s death) book in the Stillhouse Lake series. The first book in the series – also called Stillhouse Lake – had me scratching my head, wondering if I’d read it or any other in this series, as it sounded familiar. As is fairly usual in my case, the answer is no.

Fortunately, it isn’t necessary to have read the genesis of the series in order to understand this one. Even if Ms Caine had not given some quick backstory disguised as the main character’s musings while looking at the photos on the walls in her office, it would have worked just as well as a standalone thriller/mystery. I do think, however, if this books sounds interesting that reading the books in order would be beneficial, for all the little things readers might notice in each book along the way that the author may (judiciously) not mention in the later books, and to witness the growth of the characters as they move through the events of each book.

Warning, content-wise: if you’re easily put off by violence, or descriptions of violence in general, and specifically violence toward children, this is not the book for you. On the other hand, if you’re fine with violence and you like strong female characters, you might want to give it a go.

Heartbreak Bay is a multi-point of view, present tense book., and Gwen, the primary character, is now a private investigator. When Detective Kezia Claremont calls her to come to the scene of a submerged car, she can’t help but go. When the car is extracted, there are two kids, strapped in and drowned, but no sign of the mother, who was driving. This investigation by itself would be enough for a book (or more), and although I picked out the villain when they showed up in the book, this did not detract from an engaging case that tried everyone involved – as it generally is when it involves kids.

There’s a subplot involving an internet rando troll, trying to make Gwen pay for what the troll thinks she did – namely, helping her ex-husband in his serial killing ways. This subplot is ok as a device, but there’s enough stress and pressure in the primary case without it. I didn’t find this as engaging as the primary case, and that may just have to do with things external to the book (like living through the past five years, as I type this, and the sheer tsunami of nonsense online) than it does with he book itself. It does fit pretty well into the larger scope of the book, so I won’t ding it in rating it.

Overall, I found Heartbreak Bay lived up to both the thriller and mystery genres, with fairly tight plotting, good writing, and characters worth writing about.

A solid 4.5 stars out of 5, rounded to a 5 for its good qualities and no major issues.

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

Review: Ring of Spies – Richard Prince #3 (Alex Gerlis)

Richard Prince is back in this third installment of his eponymous series. While it is not necessary to have read the first two books, it certainly does help.

The book opens with an English officer describing the debacle at Arnhem (Operation Market Garden, for those into the European theater of operations during WWII). He’s insistent that the Germans knew the plans for the operation.

One of the issues with series characters is giving the reader some backstory so they know enough to agree to go along on the ride the main character is about to take, but aren’t overwhelmed to the point that they miss that bus. Generally, it’s a good idea to drizzle in the backstory like you’re making your own aioli: slowly. Doing infodumps isn’t a good way to go, just as dumping all the oil in at once into your aioli isn’t: in the case of the latter, it causes the mix to break, and in the case of he former, it breaks the reading experience. Unfortunately, Ring of Spies starts with a lot of infodumping. There are also numerous “As you know, Bob” moments where one character is telling another character something they already know as a way to get that information to the reader.

Once past all this, the story picks up, and we find out the Germans have placed numerous agents in England. Prince is back in Lincolnshire, having recovered his lost son (book two) and basically policing an area that has no huge issues with crime, and almost zero serious crimes. He’s approached again, just as he was in the first book, to join the intelligence service to help root our the German moles.

While he resists at first, he also acknowledges that he is a bit restless, having grown accustomed to the action of being a spy, where any misstep could be the last one. He agrees, and we’re off into skullduggery within England itself.

There are scenes from the German side of the war, as there have been previously in this series, and we get infodumps on this side as well, but the positioning of the agents in England, how they are insulated from one another (to make them more difficult to detect, and to make it more difficult for them to give up the entire ring), and how they communicate with the Germans was quite interesting.

The ebb and flow of the war – even though we know that in the year of book, 1944, victory in Europe is coming sooner rather than later – and the danger war brings are still very real for the participants. The book continues at a good pace through the machinations of ally and foe alike. The ending, though, feels a bit rushed, even with the buildup of action as the Allies move ever forward to victory.

Even with that, however, it’s a worthy entry to the series. I didn’t find it as good as the first book in the series, but I did like it more than the second. It’s well worth a read for thriller fans and history buffs alike.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Canelo and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: 13 Days to Die (Matt Miksa)

Sometimes, I don’t mind if a book doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when it grows up.

This is not one of those times.

13 Days to Die spreads itself across several genres – thriller (political, medical), mystery (hunting an ID to attach to a person), flat out political commentary, conspiracy theories, etc.

The basics: a man comes out of the forest in Tibet, looking like Patient Zero of a new bug that could easily become a pandemic, which will look pretty familiar to anyone living through 2020. An American intel officer impersonating a journalist, Olen Grave, is sent off to investigate this, and teams up with a Chinese medical doctor, Dr. Zhou, also investigating it.

It doesn’t spoil anything to say that Patient Zero is not just some random dude, but is more than he seems to be. Grave (it isn’t necessary to telegraph what’s going on by naming someone Grave, author, unless you want to add pulpy fiction to the list of genres) and Zhou get caught up in a (shocker!) conspiracy involving their respective countries. They have to figure out what is going on before the planet gets nuked into oblivion.

There are some unnecessary afterwords about characters at the end, and it’s at this point where the train really goes off the rails.

The story is okay, but the book could have been better if it decided whether to go into full-on conspiracy theorist ground.

Two out of five stars.

Thanks to Crooked Lane and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: The Vatican Conspiracy – Marco Venetti #1 (Peter Hogenkamp)

A fine debut in a new series!

Marco Venetti – scratch that, Father Marco Venetti – is a former sailor in the Italian Navy. Not just a sailor, though: he has the skillset of a special forces member. This skillset isn’t often necessary in his current job, but when his ex shows up, carrying stories of human trafficking, it’s a good thing he has them.

Venetti is a good character – he’s not happy about taking lives, and he’s a bit on the fence about his vows and weighing those against helping Elena. It’s nice to have a main character whose flaws and hangups do not involve them being stalked by serial killers and the like. Venetti’s introspection revolves around him taking proactive steps in life (before this book begins and within it) versus having the forces of life act upon him.

The action begins on the first page and doesn’t let up. As with most conspiracies, there’s more than just the surface level in play.

If you like Dan Brown or Gregg Hurwitz – an odd pairing, I know, but trust me on this – you’ll enjoy this one.

A solid four out of five stars.

Thanks to Bookouture and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Sirocco – St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking #2 (Dana Haynes)

Sirocco is the second book in the St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking Series, and I have to say, it’s great fun.

The duo behind St. Nicholas Salvage & Wrecking – a sham company – an ex-cop named Finnegan and an ex-spy assassin named Fiero, work out of Cyprus as international bounty hunters. One day, the Paris Station Chief for the CIA, Annie Pryor, and Hugo Llorente, from the Spanish Central Intelligence (who also trained Fiero to be a killer) come to the office in Cyprus to hire them to track down the leadership of a jihadist group that has taken responsibility for bombings in various countries. The group follows up each bombing by releasing a video, with the usual death to the infidels sort of thing.Pryor and Llorente have dark money slush funds, so they’re paying an unspecified (tot he reader) but probably obscene amount of money, and promising that the two will have whatever support the can clandestinely give – a sort of blank check for a rollicking story that rolls through Switzerland, Spain, Germany, and France.

As Finnegan and Fiero dig around in the history of the bombings, a security company (think Blackwater) ALSO want to find the jihadis – and they want to get Finnegan and Fiero away from the trail because those two want to bring in the leader of the group for trial, but the security firm intends to kill him.

But as we learn through Finnegan and Fiero’s investigation, not everything is as it seems, and the truth of the reason for the bombings eventually reveals itself. A truth that brings danger right to their doorstep. To go deeper into it would be much too spoilery – and would take the fun out of reading it.

This is a fun, fast read. Some of the things that are done are not particularly believable, but beyond a couple of instances, the action was plausible, and the banter between Finnegan and Fiero was, at times, quite witty.

A solid four out of five stars.

Review: Solstice Shadows – VanOps #2 (Avanti Centrae)

Solstice Shadows is the second book in the VanOps series. As per usual, I have not read the first, but from the description, it apparently could be read as a standalone. I really, really wish the publisher had not implied this, because it is not so. It’s clear that the story of what came before is important, and treating this like a second book where the first needs to be read, instead of a standalone part of the series, does a disservice to the book and thus to the reader.

The issue is that the author does not weave the backstory into this book well. We get internal monologues out the wazoo, and a bunch of “As you know,” with some flat out telling mixed in for good measure. Were the backstory presented as necessary, in short bursts, instead of the author trying to get in a large chunk of it at once, it would have been less annoying.

At its most basic: a star chart that supposedly maps to a source of superconductive material has been stolen from the apartment of Maddy Marshall (if it’s so important, why does she not keep it in a safe?) but the thief did not find the sliver of a blade? material? something. She, her twin brother, and her boyfriend Bear have been recruited to the super super super secret VanOps group – interestingly, even with all the telling going on, I’ve no idea at 35% what the “van” part of that stands for – and Maddy is dithering on accepting because she’s part of a super super super secret and special group of international spies. Or something.

I’m sorry, but the narrative in this is driving me crazy as I read it and it’s going on the DNF list at 35%. I didn’t care about these people, what they’d done, or what they were going to do, and I just don’t think the writing itself is very good. This one was not for me, even though it sounded interesting when I came across it.

Thanks to Thunder Creek and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Out of Her Mind – Sawyer Brooks #2 (T. R. Ragan)

This is the second book to feature Sawyer Brooks, following Don’t Make a Sound, which I have not read. While I found this did not completely torpedo my ability to follow this second book without having read the first, I think it would have been quite helpful to have read that first book, especially to understand Sawyer’s personal issues and the Black Wig ladies. It was a bit confusing to suddenly jump into the head of one of the latter group.

Here, we have Sawyer looking into the disappearance of a young girl after her music lesson at the home of her piano teacher. While the authorities are treating it as a generic disappearance, Sawyer digs around and finds connections to other disappearances. When the bones of a small child are unearthed, the stake get even higher, and it’s then a race against time for Sawyer to find the missing girl, with the help of her editor and sister.

I filed this under thriller instead of mystery, because there is no mystery here: we know who took the girl, because the perpetrator gets their own turn in the spotlight, with several chapters from their viewpoint. The only mystery involved here is whether Sawyer and crew will find the girl before she, too, winds up in a shallow grave.

When the narrative suddenly broke into the viewpoint of one of the Black Wigs women, it was a little jarring and a tad confusing. Again, this may be due to me not having read the first book. We also get several scenes of what those women are doing to men who have harmed them. It wasn’t until the third time that I realized one of the women was Sawyer’s other sister (not the one helping her find the missing girl).

The story was enjoyable enough – there isn’t anything hidden from the reader, so what Sawyer knows, we know, and that’s a plus for me, as I don’t like withheld evidence that prevents readers from connecting the dots to find the ad guy (or in this case, potentially find the missing girl).

I gave this 3.5 stars out of five, and rounded it up to 4, as there were no glaring plot holes. Although there were some scenes that didn’t quite ring true, those involved the Black Wig crew and not the main character.

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