Two Entertaining Listens

Was your New Year’s resolution to get more exercise, and you’re having trouble bounding out of bed with the necessary zeal on these gloomy mornings? Here are two thrillers for your in audio that will get you up and moving, simply because you have to know “What happens next?” These two books are both impeccably entertaining and couldn’t be more different.

Blacktop Wasteland

SA Crosby, Blacktop Wasteland

When Crime Fiction Lover reviewer Rough Justice said “believe the hype” about SA Crosby’s rural noir novel, Blacktop Wasteland, he wasn’t kidding. Suffice it to say that Crosby has achieved that literary ideal—to create the universal by focusing on the specific. The types of challenges faced by Beauregard “Bug” Montage are faced by many sons of missing dads, by many hard-working people of limited means, by many who believe they cannot escape their past.

So much has been written about this multiple award-nominated novel, I won’t rehash the story, but if you like audio books, this is definitely one for your “must-listen” list. Actor Adam Lazarre-White is pitch-perfect, not only when it comes to the Black family at the center of the narrative but also in portraying the white trash grifters and petty criminals with their dubious, dangerous schemes.

Crosby has written his dialog with a precise ear for the rhythms and patterns of speech of his native southern Virginia (the pleading “Just hear me out,” from someone Bug should never in a million years listen to). Combined with Lazarre-White’s talents, Crosby’s characters come to life unforgettably. Good and bad, Black and white, brave and sniveling. They are real people.

Agent Running in the Field

This is John le Carré’s last novel published before his death in December, set in the upper realms of the British espionage establishment. The hero, 47-year-old MI6 agent Nat, is afraid he’s about to be shoved into retirement, but instead he’s given a lackluster post in a local backwater. Maybe this is to keep him out of trouble, but no matter, trouble finds him.

It’s an unsettled time, with Brexit looming and the political establishment, like all of Britain, deeply divided. Though you may anticipate what the sources of Nat’s deepening dilemmas will be, how he goes about extricating himself is exciting reading or, in this case, listening.

Agent is narrated by le Carré himself, and though I’m usually skeptical of an author reading his own work (mostly because I know what a bad job I would do), he offers a persuasive performance. Almost all the characters are British, which may help, or not. (Prof. Henry Higgins would be happy to dissect the regional and impenetrable idiosyncrasies of English speech.) Listening to le Carré read his own words here, quite expertly, as it happens, feels like a kind of good-bye.  

The Border

The Border, Don Winslow

By Don Winslow – Whew! Another 700+ page book in 2020! Thanks to covid for opening up more reading time, though this book requires multiple kinds of stamina. Having read Winslow’s previous book in this unforgettable trilogy, The Cartel, and the late Charles Bowden’s real-life story, Down by the River, I was prepared for the brutality of the drug trade south of the border. And for American hypocrisy. And my own frustration. What I didn’t expect was how much worse it has gotten.

Most U.S. drug deaths come from illegally manufactured opioids (fentanyl), cocaine that is often laced with heroin or illicit fentanyl, and methamphetamines. All these drugs are manufactured and distributed by the Mexican cartels. They have so much money, they are a giant tail wagging the dog of the Mexican economy and the drug lords must look elsewhere for places to stash and launder their loot. Elsewhere, like the United States, where the size of the prize is just too tempting for major banks, like HSBC and Wells Fargo, and others to turn away.

Though Winslow’s character Adán Berrera is a stand-in for drug lord Joaquín Guzmán, it’s around the disposition of the money that Winslow’s new book turns into a mind-bending roman à clef. His main character, Art Keller, is now head of the DEA in the late days of the Obama Administration. On the horizon are the acolytes of surprise Republican presidential candidate and Twitter addict John Dennison, whose son-in-law, Jason Lerner, is a Manhattan real estate investment tycoon. Sound familiar? Real estate, Keller knows, is a prime sinkhole for large amounts of cash, and a deal Lerner is trying to negotiate needs cash fast.

In a Sean Woods interview for Rolling Stone, Winslow said he has no information linking Trump or Kushner to drug money. However, he believes, the link doesn’t strain credibility: “We live in an extremely corrupt era.” He believed that creating another type of U.S. leader would have been much more disconcerting for readers.

Every once in a while, Art Keller climbs up on his soapbox. He rails against the drug-prison industrial complex or the failure of U.S. immigration policy or the shortsightedness of attacking the supply side of the drug equation rather than the demand side or the incarceration of some 300,000 Americans, mostly for petty drug crimes and the relative impunity of those, like the bankers and investors who facilitate the trade from the top.

But The Border isn’t just a polemic. It’s a multi-layered thriller packed with adventure and compelling characters whose fates you’ll care about. If this review concentrates on the issues rather than the literary devices of plot, characterization, setting, and the like, it’s because those resonances with reality will really stay with you. They’re what make this such an important book.

We Americans turn a blind eye to the drug trade and the corrosive power of its financing at our peril. “You know,” Winslow said, “the problem with writing these books is virtually everything in them really happened.”

Order The Border from Amazon here.

My Friends Write!

Despite Covid, my friends who are writers are coming out with new books, but with fewer—or at least vastly different—strategies to let us know about them. I’ve joined any number of their ZOOM and Facebook book launches, followed their social media announcements, and read their marketing emails. By and large, these strategies are interesting and not totally satisfying. Better than nothing, I suppose, if frustrating for them.

Here are three recent books by writer friends not reviewed here before. Dick Belsky and Al Tucher I know from crime writing conferences and events sponsored by the New York chapter of Mystery Writers of America. I haven’t met PA De Voe in person, but we’ve bonded over a shared passion for Robert van Gulik’s Tang Dynasty magistrate, Judge Dee Goong An. I mentioned James McCrone’s new political thriller yesterday. Click on the book’s title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Last Scoop

RG Belsky is a former New York City newsman who’s turned his intimate knowledge of the city and its characters into a number of engaging crime novels. In this story, harried Channel 10 news director Clare Carlson is in the middle of both a puzzling murder story and a potential exposé of city political shenanigans. In following clues left by her late mentor, she gradually uncovers what would have been his last scoops: a previously unrecognized serial killer on the loose and a pattern of mob payoffs. Clare is a bull in a china shop, but she has a powerful, self-deprecating sense of humor, and the demands of the daily news cycle keep her plowing forward at speed. Read my full review here.

Pele’s Domain

A novella set in Hawai`i is almost too appealing. This new story by Al Tucher brings the lore, the multicultural mix, the unique foods, and the island attitude front and center once again. Pele, the volcano goddess, is acting up, and the volcano that’s her home, Kilauea, is erupting spectacularly.

For residents of the raggedy communities in the path of the searing lava, the eruptions are more deadly hazard than spectacle. Trees, houses, cars—all incinerated. Perfect places to hide a couple of murders. The ironic contrast between tropical paradise and dirty dealing in Tucher’s novels is always fun and, here, Kilauea itself is added to the detectives’ adversaries. Read my full review here.

Judge Lu’s Case Files

If a Hawaiian escape isn’t quite distant enough, go back to Ming Dynasty China where PA De Voe channels what must be an earlier incarnation to write with such authenticity her novels and short stories set in that period.

The twelve short stories in this collection have straightforward plots, partly a result of their length and party the reality that cases in that era had to be wrapped up in a day or two. Plus, miscreants were expected to confess, and “encouraged” to do so by their jailers.

Although the stories take place more than 600 years ago, they provide timeless insights into human behavior. Read my full review here.

War Stories: Oddly Timely?

Can focusing on another low point in Western civilization sidetrack you from obsessing over the current news cycle? Does seeing how another generation coped with agonizing stress help? These engrossing World War II stories are like biting your lip as a distraction from a different pain. Click on the novel title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Interpreter

AJ Sidransky’s political thriller has a fresh and appealing story line. The war in Europe is winding down when US Army Intelligence recruits Vienna-born GI Kurt Berlin to help in its interrogations of captured Germans—Nazis, Wehrmacht officers, and members of the SS and Gestapo.

When he reluctantly agrees, he finds himself face-to-face with the Nazi who had a terrible impact on his own family. He’s in the excruciating position of keeping his own emotions in check, but can he sustain it? Read my full review here.

Night of Shooting Stars, Ben Pastor

The Night of Shooting Stars

Latest in author Ben Pastor’s award-winning World War II-era political thrillers about colonel Baron Martin von Bora, late of German military intelligence. Because his former unit was believed to harbor anti-Nazi army officers, Bora must keep looking over his shoulder when he’s asked to investigate a strange murder. Is it a trap? What he keeps uncovering are dangerous hints about a plot threatening Adolf Hitler himself. Read my full review here.

The Winds of War
War and Remembrance

The audiobook of Herman Wouk’s 1971 saga, The Winds of War, is long (45 hours, 46 minutes) and engaging—perfect for my daily 40-minute walk. There are an awful lot of characters in this story of events leading up to World War II—American, English, German, Polish—many of them real-life politicians and military leaders. At the core of the story is a single family, fictional US Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, his wife, his three adult children, and their significant others. Pug is desperate to command a battleship, but naval intelligence duties in the capitals of Europe keep delaying that assignment. You get a well-rounded picture of the multinational political forces and military maneuvering in the late 1930s, packaged in a rich skein of interesting plot lines. The book ends shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

War and Remembrance, Herman Wouk

In its sequel, War and Remembrance (56 hours), Pug is still in the Navy, son Warren is a Navy flyer stationed on an aircraft carrier in Pearl Harbor, and son Byron is a submariner. Byron’s situation is complicated by his marriage to Natalie Jastrow, a Jew stuck in fascist Italy. With these three men in different branches of the Navy, Wouk thrillingly (for me) recreates many of the important battles and strategies of the war in the Pacific.

You may recall ABC’s 1980s miniseries of these books with Robert Mitchum as Pug Henry (Interestingly, all three children were played by different actors in the two productions.) Reportedly, a new adaptation, to be co-written by Seth MacFarlane is in the works.

The Winds of War was a best-seller, but the critics didn’t love either book. Too much emphasis on historical accuracy over character development, they thought. Exactly what made me enjoy it! It’s like an education about the war in an easy-to-digest package, with Wouk’s main point, the key word “remembrance.”

The audiobooks are narrated brilliantly by Kevin Pariseau, who kept me company all summer.

Autumn Thrills

Three exciting reads from 2020. The only thing they have in common is how good they are! Click on the title for my Amazon affiliate link.

The Wicked Sister

In this all-new story and cast of characters, Karen Dionne reprises elements of her first quite fabulous book, The Marsh King’s Daughter. Again, the setting is the sparsely populated, heavily wooded Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and, again, the natural world plays an important role, underlining themes and supporting the action.

The main character, 26-year-old Rachel, even talks to animals. Dionne’s light touch makes these interactions more revealing of Rachel than weird. Rachel is fragile. She’s just spent 15 years in a mental institution believing she murdered her parents. With chapters narrated by both her mother (“then”) and Rachel (“now”), you learn what really happened and pray for Rachel’s escape. My full review here.

How to Be Nowhere

Fasten your seatbelt for a breakneck, bumpy ride. Tim MacGabhann’s new thriller takes place in the murky regions of Central America

Investigative reporter Andrew and his friend Maya have connected with some pretty dangerous characters over the years, and that past comes roaring back.

The bad guys want the reporters’ help finding their leader’s daughter, a much more difficult and dangerous task than you might imagine. Plenty of dark humor. If Hollywood ever makes a movie of this story, they’ll need a hefty budget line-item for expendable vehicles.

My full review here.

Seven Lies

Elizabeth Kay’s new domestic thriller is an immersive journey into a twenty-year friendship. Jane and Marnie have been inseparable since age eleven, though narrator Jane doesn’t hesitate to explain the many ways they differ.

They work in London post-college, and Marnie meets successful, wealthy, charming Charles. Jane loathes him. When Marnie asks Jane, “You think we’re right for each other, don’t you?” Jane swallows hard and tells lie number one: “Yes, I do.”

Kay strings you along, inviting your complicity, as the box Jane has constructed for herself becomes smaller and smaller and her lies increasingly consequential. My full review here.

Armchair Adventures

In case you wonder what the *** mean in my reviews, there’s a key on the book reviews page. They’re a good guide to how much I liked a book—since my reviews leave open the possibility a read I found meh might suit someone else perfectly.

****The Dead Don’t Sleep
By Steven Max Russo—It has taken five decades for the long arm of retribution to reach halfway around the world and tap the shoulder of Frank Thompson. Today, Frank is a recent widower living in rural Maine, and he doesn’t talk about Vietnam, but the buddies of the American he shot there so many years ago have found him.

The three men are full of plans for tracking him down, and for the massive, highly illegal firepower needed for this mission, one fueled with alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. They’re all about Frank’s age, nearly 70, which is a stretch. I can imagine guys in their twenties and even thirties talking themselves into such a crazy plan. Yet the author makes clear the years haven’t added to these guys’ store of common sense or muted their violent tendencies.

From his home in New Jersey, Frank’s nephew Bill knows about the danger and wants to help. He has zero experience with the kinds of situations Frank has seen, and his indecision alone is enough to tell you he’d be a liability in any kind of showdown. “Stay home!” I kept telling Bill telepathically. He doesn’t listen.

This is Steven Max Russo’s second thriller. He’s an advertising executive and lives in New Jersey, which accounts for his solid descriptions of life here in the Garden State.

*****The Wild One
By Nick Petrie – This is Nick Petrie’s fifth thriller featuring PTSD-afflicted Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Peter Ash, and it retains all the energy of his earlier works. Ash’s old war-buddy seeks his help in locating an eight-year-old boy, who disappeared a year earlier from his Washington, DC, home, after witnessing his mother’s murder. The kidnapper is most likely the boy’s own father, the presumed killer, and he’s most hiding out with his tight-knit family in remote northern Iceland.

The mother, Sarah, ran a computer security business. On a client’s servers, she discovered career-ending evidence of criminality among Washington’s political class. She sets up a mirror server with an unbreakably long encryption key preserved in only one form, in the photographic memory of her son Óskar. The bad guys want it.

Ash has plenty of antagonists, aside from his internal demons. There’s the mysterious crew following him: do they want him to find Eric and Óskar? Or not? There is Erik’s paranoid extended family, not averse to ensuring their privacy with violence. There is the head of the Icelandic Hjálmar, relentless in trying to bring Peter in. But perhaps his greatest adversary is Iceland’s brutal, dead-of-winter weather. A more apt metaphor would be difficult to find. So, throw on a couple of sweaters, make yourself a cup of something hot, and settle in for a wild ride.

If there’s anything to object to in Petrie’s work, it’s a tendency to reach a little too far in the closing pages. In this book, a final act of violence puzzled me, because it came out of the blue. But that wasn’t enough to negate everything solid that had gone before. Do note that Ash is now a wanted man and has no passport or I.D. It will be interesting to see how he gets back to Oregon. I’m hoping Petrie plans to tell me.

Photo: Sasint Tipchai for Pixabay

Dust Off Your Library Card

chalk outline, body

You see so many reviews of brand new crime novels on this website because, as you may know, I read and review them for the fantastic UK website CrimeFictionLover.com. Occasionally, I dig into my book pile and find something not suitable for CFL. Possibly it’s a book that’s been out a while, a new book already reviewed by CFL or in one case below, great non-fiction. A post for another day is a list of not-crime books. There is such a thing!

***Identical
By Scott Turow (2013) – if you want a novel full of twists and turns, this one has it. If you want a novel that stretches the bonds of plausibility, you have that too. Twin brothers Cass and Paul (Castor and Pollux, get it?) couldn’t be more different. One is running for city mayor, the other about to be released from jail after 25 years. He pled guilty to the murder of his girlfriend Aphrodite Kronon. Confusions worthy of the ancient Greeks and arising from twinhood are here, fairly predictably.

****Statute of Limitations
By Steven F. Havill (2006) – This is one of Havill’s meticulous police procedurals set in small-town New Mexico. I’ve read three of them, and I love them! A retired police chief abandoned after collapsing from a heart attack, a body in an arroyo, a late-night attack—this Christmas season is certainly not filled with goodwill toward mankind. Under-sheriff Estelle Reyes-Guzman doesn’t miss a beat.

****The Aosawa Murders
By Riku Onda (2005), translated from the Japanese by Alison Watts – Newly published in English, the scenes in this prize-winning book are like a set of still lifes. Different points of view describe a crime in which 17 members of a single family were murdered, with only one survivor, a young blind woman. Gradually, the crime is pieced together. Lovely writing, stellar cover.

***False Light
By Claudia Riess (2019) – This is the second outing for amateur sleuths, art experts, and randy spouses Erika Shawn and Harrison Wheatley. Their challenge this time is to decipher a coded message from a famous art forger, now dead. Supposedly, it will identify some of his works masquerading in prestigious collections as the real thing. It’s a great set-up, and if you’re a fan of art world skullduggery, you may enjoy this, but I found the denouement implausible.

*****Breaking and Entering
By Jeremy N. Smith (2019) – Subtitled “the extraordinary story of a hacker called ‘alien,’” this is the nonfiction story of a woman’s career from her exploits as an MIT undergraduate through to her current role consulting with banks, government agencies, and others on security issues. Cybersecurity is their big concern, and she and her team are cyber experts, but they also routinely prove to clients that good old humanware can be their weakest link. Fascinating.

***Net Force: Dark Web

photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

Jerome Priesler’s new techno-thriller, Net Force: Dark Web carries on a series created by the late Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik, but lacks the immersive, gotta-turn-the-page qualities of Clancy’s work. It’s certainly true that cybersecurity becomes more consequential by the day, but this book doesn’t make the case.

True to current thriller-writing style, it comprises short chapters of a few pages that skip around to cover the actions of a large number of players, among them: black hat hackers versus white hat hackers, corrupt African leaders, the President of the United States and her new cyber-initiative team, CIA and FBI operatives, parking garage attendants, and moms with kids. In other words, a lot. Too much, in fact. If an author expects to maintain your interest for around 700 pages, the length of the paperback version, at least some of those characters should be written in enough depth to make you care about them.

The story starts strong, with a prologue set in 2023 in Malta (why this was a “prologue” and not just Chapter 1, I don’t know, as it’s contemporaneous with the rest of the story and integral to it). A young woman who has something to do with software development flees through city streets, trailed not just by men in vehicles, but also by a drone following her every twist and turn.

Just as you’re rooting for her escape, in a nice reversal, she’s captured, and you learn her pursuers are CIA and she may not be one of the good guys after all. Then the action moves to Romania where black hat operators plan to use the woman’s clever software to take control of a wide array of computers. They probably can’t anticipate the full ramifications of their project, given the near-future pervasiveness of the Internet of Things. The CIA wants the woman’s help, but she’s resisting.

I won’t go into how all the other plot threads and descriptive elements merge with this set-up, except to say some of them don’t. The entire Africa plotline was extraneous to the story; deleting it would have reduced the page count. Likewise, Priesler describes every new character at length, whether they reappear or not. You may regret struggling to remember all those backstories.

What makes a techno-thriller work is confidence that the author has the technology down pat (good examples are Ghost Fleet or This is Gomorrah). Inevitably, a moment arrives when the author goes out on a limb, when you must suspend disbelief and just hang in, but I never reached that point of trust. As far as I can tell from his past works, Priesler has not written this type of book before, and it shows.

Photo: openDemocracy, creative commons license

****City of Windows

snow city blizzard

By Robert Pobi – In a CrimeFictionLovers interview with Robert Pobi about his 2012 debut novel Bloodman, he revealed he’d wanted to write an old-fashioned character-driven story. He’s done it again with his new police procedural, City of Windows.

Ten years before the start of this book, Dr. Lucas Page, astrophysicist, left his FBI career on uneasy terms after an accident with explosives nearly killed him. He now has a prosthetic arm, a prosthetic leg, and one ceramic eye that doesn’t quite track with the other. Page’s challenges in dealing with the bionic parts of his body greatly increase the depth of his character.

Now Page teaches at Columbia University in Manhattan. He thinks his students are generally lackluster, but then he has a jaded view of most things. Except his family. His wife Erin is a pediatrician. They have five kids and a happy dog—a ragtag collection of children “whose biological parents had failed them and the system had given up on.” The family interactions provide a nice balance to the story’s crime elements, though the kids are possibly too cooperative.

As the university’s semester closes out for the Christmas holiday, a huge blizzard is under way. Many blocks south in midtown Manhattan, a bizarre shooting has occurred, and the news reports show Page’s old FBI colleagues working the case. The victim was in a moving vehicle, shot from a high angle from a considerable distance. Identifying the sniper’s nest will be difficult.

Because Page has an uncanny ability to plot bullet trajectories and lines of sight, that evening’s visit from his former FBI supervisor, though unwelcome, is not unexpected. The Bureau is involved because the dead man was one of their own, Page’s former partner. Page’s uncanny ability, though rusty, still works—automatic, instinctive, and unexplainable. He identifies a building almost eight football fields away from the point of impact.

Old jealousies arise, family needs pull at him, his former supervisor is as opaque as ever, there’s political pressure to pin the shooting on a Muslim extremist, without any evidence, and Page is not on a track that will make him friends, but when a second law enforcement officer is assassinated a mere thirteen hours later, any hope evaporates that the first agent’s death was a fluke. In his heart of hearts, Page loves this work.

The second victim was shot on the semi-crowded tram that operates between Roosevelt Island and Manhattan, moving at almost eighteen miles an hour, through the continuing snowstorm, from a distance of almost a half-mile. Another impossible shot. And again, Page pinpoints the shooter’s position. When yet a third law enforcement officer is killed, it’s clear the killer is after specific individuals, but they seem unrelated and even are from different law enforcement agencies. Figuring out what they have in common calls on Page’s insightful investigatory skills, aided by three of those maligned college students.

As the bodies pile up, it appears that Page and his family are the assassin’s ultimate targets. This is the book’s weakest point, as it seems manufactured so the plot can culminate in a showdown between Page and the killer. While the rationale for the earlier murders follows a kind of twisted logic, the targeting of Page and his family does not. That problem aside, the story provides plenty of thrills along the way, and I hope Pobi writes more about Lucas Page.

Photo: from Pixabay

****Fishermen of Kérity

fishing nets

By Peter James Quirk – In 1959, when Peter James Quirk’s protagonist Tommy Kiernan goes in search of his past, he finds a more complicated and thrilling story than he’d ever imagined. Only 19 and an American college student from upstate New York, he was born in the English fishing village of Brixham to an elegant French mother and Irish father, now separated.

Two events start his quest. One night recently, a deliberately set fire destroyed Tommy and his mother’s home, and not long afterward, his mother is killed when her car plunges from the mountain highway into a ravine. Suspicion arises that these two events are not unrelated, and Tommy decides he must find out who murdered her. As she is not the type to develop enemies, he believes the killer is someone from her mysterious past.

Clues to her life in Brittany might lie in her beautiful artwork. Tommy finds her journal, sketchbook, and a bit of shocking information. When Breton fishermen helped her escape the Nazis in 1940, she was already pregnant, which means the big Irishman, Francis Thomas Kiernan, isn’t his father after all.

His mother’s painting, Fishermen of Kérity, suggests where to start in trying to fill in the details of her life. Tommy travels to Kérity on the Breton coast, hoping to meet some of Jackie’s long-ago friends. Did any of them survived the war, do they know who his birth father was, and will they talk to him about any of this? Author Quirk does an excellent job evoking the Breton community as the threat of war materializes into invasion, occupation, and retribution. It is a sad, dangerous time.

Quirk, born and educated in England, now lives in the United States. The knowledge of the sea he gained as a fisherman and with the British Merchant Marine gives the book’s scenes on the Breton docks and sailing the French coastline a nice realism. While I enjoyed the historical content that makes up most of the book, the scenes set in 1959 Vermont—Tommy’s romance and his clumsy methods for finding his mother’s killer—are less convincing.

This is a short novel (169 pages), quickly read, and while I had the aforementioned quibble with the 1959 story, on the whole Quirk’s writing style is clear and enjoyable. He has created a memorable tale in a colorful, high-stakes setting.

Photo of fishermen’s nets: Lisa Redfern for Pixabay