Tag Archives: thrillers

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: The President’s Dossier (James A. Scott)

I almost added my nonfiction-scams tag to this one in addition to tagging it as a thriller, as the book is clearly based on the Steele Dossier. If you are not from the US, or do not follow US politics, the Steele Dossier (in this book, renamed the Ironside Dossier) reported on Russian involvement during the 2016 elections in the US, favoring the Republican candidate.

In The President’s Dossier, Max Geller, who previously worked for the CIA in its Moscow station, has been fired from the Agency after he offers anything less than praise for recently elected President Ted Walldrum (which anagrams to Mr Lewd Adult, something I found amusing and fitting, given the real life person he’s modeled on), dumped by one girlfriend only to take up with another who works so much they barely see one another, and even with his credentials is unable to find a new job three weeks after his dismissal. He wonders if the Agency is waving people away from him. This “Duh!” moment is one I will have repeatedly for Max throughout the book, even though he is supposedly a superspy.

One day, a man named Bowen appears at the bar where Max spends his afternoons, carrying a briefcase of money. He offers $10 million (USD) to Max to verify the content of (and thereby sources for) the Ironside Dossier, so named because of the British MI6 intelligence officer who put it together. As someone obviously not a fan of Walldrum, Max has no issues signing a contract – with a Panamanian entity Bowen represents, which should have been another flag for Max – and taking the job.

Max also receives a call from Rodney, his old boss at the CIA, who knows Bowen has been to see him (another red flag) and dangles some reward in front of him. He also gives Max some gear, including an identity and a satphone.

I was suspicious, and Max should have been as well. Max makes some calls to have other people get all sorts of arrangements done – travel, gear, surveillance, etc. In fact, he doesn’t seem to do much work himself of any sort that is not either walking into a place under a forged identity, sometime lifting documents or thumb drives from people, sleeping with Jill Rucker, who Bowen assigned to Max as a cutout (i.e., someone between Bowen and whoever he represents and Max), or getting kidnapped and subsequently rescued by other members of his team. There are also operational failures that are unforgivable – Max gets other people killed because he fails to think things through. As just one instance, he doesn’t even seem to consider for a moment that perhaps Ironside is under surveillance by the Russians.

After being kidnapped, rescued, then rescued again in the same chapter, and now being hunted by MI6 in addition to the Russians, Max and crew head to St. Petersburg (Russia), to verify some items in the dossier – specifically, the loans and money laundering, and what I refer to as the “peeing with prostitutes” thing, all of which are in the real Steele Dossier. There is a nice setup with lookalikes that allow Max and Jill to leave the cruise ship they were on and not reboard it, giving them a head start on Russian intelligence.

After some time and activities in St Petersburg, the action moves to Moscow, where they contact a group known as Omega, who are working toward a future where Putin is removed from office and the oligarchs prosecuted for looting the country. In one of those more fantastical scenes, Max and Rucker impersonate FSB officers, enter a bank where one of the Omegas works, and retrieve thumb drives from a worker there. But Max, having not entirely thought it out, is seen by a security guard. That leads to a shootout and various deaths, and they’re now on the run again, chased by Zaluda on behalf of the Russian intelligence service.

One thing that had me scratching my head was just how easily Max and Rucker managed to move from country to country. At no point were they ever questioned about their identities, held up at Customs, or anything else. They either simply traveled as themselves, without facial altering, under forged identities, or impersonated (in one rather unbelievable instance) a man and woman who looked very much like them, who just happened to be part of a flight crew of a Russian plane leaving for Paris.

Every now and again, Max asks himself some questions: about the timing of his firing, and why, about his current girlfriend, about Bowen/Panama, about his old boss offering him the same job, and so on. Never does he actually delve into any of it, even though this entire job could at any point result in his death or the deaths of members of his team. He is suspicious of Bowen, and (finally) of Rucker, sending her to Mexico City, away from the rest of the team.

Panama was next on the list, where they verified, somewhat loosely, the loan/money laundering items by breaking in to the 13th floor of “Walldrum Tower Panama” and seeing that the floor was incomplete and showed no signs of any work in progress – even though the entire floor of condos had been purchased by Russians. Max is, once again, caught while snooping around and is rescued by another member of the team. It’s in this portion of the book that the manner in which money is laundered via loans and real estate investing/purchases is explained fairly well by one of the characters to Max, in layman’s terms – so, also, to the reader, since Max should presumably know at least the basics. There’s a showdown between Max and Rucker, from whom he forces the truth, after she shows up very angrily in Panama City.

The whole gang then moves back to the US, their job complete: mirroring real life once more, they’ve verified the Ironside Dossier. Bowen says Max has not completed it, because the sources are not named. Max refuses to name them, pointing out that Bowen only contracted him to verify the details. It occurred very late to Max that maybe, just maybe, Bowen was working for the Russians, trying to get Max to name names attached to the items in the dossier, which would have resulted in a (longer) hitlist for the Russians.

There’s more shooting, a showdown with Rodney, and then, of course, the nonsensical bureaucratic issues that plagued the real Steele Dossier. I won’t give away the actual ending, to avoid spoilers, but it sets things up nicely for Max and his crew if they should go on other adventures that are very noisy and leave a trail of bodies everywhere.

The writing is fine, and the book speeds right along between different milieus – in fact, there’s very little downtime that we actually see, versus hear about. There’s also an annoying motif where this sort of thing happens:

Character: (says something in code)
Spyspeak: (explains what Character just said)
Character: (says something in code)
Spyspeak: (explains what Character just said)

We get it, spies speak in code, but it would have flowed better had Max just explained it once he got off the phone with whoever it was.

The beginning and end of this shadow reality: there is a dossier, it was adjudged to be predominantly true, and the conclusion was reached that the Russians did interfere with the 2016 US presidential election. The middle part is one account of how the investigation of its content could have gone, and despite the items that bugged me about Max and how some of the story was conveyed, I’d say it isn’t a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

3.5 out of five stars, rounded down to three for the issues mentioned.

Thanks to Oceanview Publishing 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.

Review: The Good Killer (Harry Dolan)

I liked the idea – a couple, creating new lives under new names to escape a past we don’t immediately know about. The execution of it, though, left me feeling a bit meh.

Sean and Molly are living in Houston under new names, years after ripping off an art dealer in a heist in which Sean’s friend Cole, was killed. The art dealer wants revenge and the stolen materials back, and the dead man’s father (who seems to be some kind of low level gangster) just wants revenge.

One day, when Sean is at a mall – which the author tells us is the largest in Texas, or something or other – when an obsessed man grabs a woman from the store in which she works and starts shooting other shoppers. Sean walks up to him and calmly executes him with one shot each to the chest and head. After helping a couple of the injured people, he leaves. Security footage, though, gets out into the world, and now the people who want their pound of flesh know where he is.

While they make their way to Houston, Sean bugs out, heading to Montana to pick up Molly, who has gone there on a retreat. Along the way, we get some Legend of Billy Jean type narrative, with an auto repair shop owner and a local Sheriff recognizing Sean from the mall video, but not doing anything about him and allowing him to go on his way.

Jimmy,the dead man’s father, and his sidekick make it to Montana before Sean, and try to kidnap Molly in order to force Sean’s hand. But they miss, and Molly hops into Sean’s car, as he has arrived just in the nick of time. Afterward, Jimmy tells his sidekick all about what happened to Cole, so the readers….I mean, so his sidekick will know why he wants to find and kill Sean.

It goes on like this for awhile, but not before we collect a lot of other characters along the way. Events converge on a single location and there is the requisite people dying at the end and another transformation.

The narrative was not particularly compelling and was also supremely annoying. First, it seems everyone and their brother got some narrative time, sometimes in the middle of someone else’s narrative (something that was done for no good reason I could see; the second character’s piece could just as easily been said after the one it broke into). Second, the writing style was full of short, declarative sentences. Lots of them. In both dialogue and narrative. Sentence fragments, too. Many of them. Third, we got a lot of step by steps of what the characters were doing. Like this:

“His hiking boots are in the trunk. He puts them on and locks the car. He sets out for one of the hiking trails, but after only a few paces he turns back.

There’s a Glock nine millimeter in the glove compartment with a shoulder rig to hold it. He sits in the passenger seat and straps it on. He reaches into the backseat for his gray windbreaker. He puts it on to cover the gun.”

This sort of thing is all over the place.

Finally, it’s in present tense, of which I’m not really a fan.

It’s serviceable, and a fast enough read. I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it, either.

Three stars out of five.

Thanks to Grove Atlantic/Mysterious Press and NetGalley for the review copy.

Review: Time to Hunt – Pierce Hunt #3 (Simon Gervais)

Time to Hunt is the third book in a series, and I have not read the first two. While there may be information about Pierce Hunt in the first two, I’m afraid I’ll never know.

This book opens with what is to me a laughable action: an operative in Turkey, awakening suddenly in a bed, “diving” for a pistol that is under the other pillow on the bed. A team of black-clothed commandos bursts in and takes him away. He’s tortured a few chapters later and at the end of that, it seems he is dying/has died.

Meanwhile, a CIA officer named Triggs is with her son, tracking down Pierce Hunt in the Bahamas. She was told not to go to Turkey to hunt down Jorge Ramirez (who apparently is someone they’ve been hunting in the first two books), so in the spirit of renegade officers everywhere, she sends someone else.thus, the dude bed diving. Her son Max is her second in command, and they talk about sending the badass Hunt to Turkey with another operative to get the bed diving guy back.

Their vehicles are attacked, and Max sends his mother down the hill behind them after she’s been shot. As she makes a break for it, their vehicle is hit with an RPG and explodes, and her son with it, apparently.

I’ll stop there for spoiler reasons, in the event you want to read this.

This is one of those very rare instances that a book is a DNF for me. At 15% (according to the progress meter on my Fire), we find out who the bad guy is. At 18%, he has a very lengthy internal monologue, letting us know all about his motivation and his plans.

How can you write a thriller when one of the pieces that should be thrilling but that is not present here is the hunt for the bad guy, sniffing them out, flushing them from cover out into the open so the denouement is satisfying? I know the ultimate bad guy is Ramirez, but short of capturing/killing him, someone else has to take his place in each book, and if I’m told who it is and why he’s doing things, it really blunts the part of my mind that cares about what happens, since it’s likely that person will be caught/killed.

Sadly, I cannot recommend this. As always, your mileage may vary.

Two stars out of five.

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

Review: Payback (Lorenzo Carcaterra)

Payback begins with Detective Eddie Kenwood coercing a murder confession out of a young black man.

We then cut to Tommy “Tank” Rizzo watching his nephew Chris shoot hoops, and a tiny infodump about how Tank and his partner Frank “Pearl” Monroe were shot off the job and how Chris came to live with Tank – more specifically, how Tank’s brother and sister in law (Chris’ parents) were killed in an auto accident.

This is about the extent of how character development goes throughout the book. As this is book two in the series, perhaps we get to know the characters better in book one. Alas, I’ve not read it.

Tank and Pearl, ex-cops that they are, get thrown cases by the Chief of Detectives from time to time when the official NYPD detectives are overloaded. In this book, however, the focus is on determining if Tank’s brother – as his nephew insists – was murdered in that car accident, versus it being a real accident, and to find out is the company is laundering money for bad guys locally and from around the world. The secondary focus is on Tank and Pearl collecting evidence about Eddie Kenwood and more specifically, getting the young man who confessed at the beginning of the book out of prison.

Tank and Pearl run an investigative service, but there isn’t a ton of investigating of the main case done on the page – probably because it’s accounting, and pulling up spreadsheets and putting numbers all over the page would slow things down, as it’s difficult to put tension into that.

The better parts of the book are when Tank and Pearl actually go back into the field to get informants and cons to talk about Kenwood so they can build a case. Those parts are gritty and seem much more realistic (and are certainly much more interesting) than the primary case.

There are a number of murders, some tough guy talks by fixers from the accounting firm, a few scenes with Tank and his girlfriend, who is the daughter of a local mob boss with whom Tank is friendly, and who Tank brings in to help with the accounting firm parts, and an entirely unbelievable talk with the DA about blanket immunity for a group of Romanians up to and including murder if they have to be brought in to the accounting firm case.

Minus the group talks about the accounting firm, the book is a quick read, and fans of the genre will forgive the things like the DA’s immunity agreement, because those things make the story more interesting. Putting Tank’s brother’s death to rest by finding answers, but I think the two cases in this book would have been fine in a book devoted just to each.

Overall, a three star out of five read for me. Your mileage may vary.

Thanks to Random House/Ballantine and NetGalley for the review copy.