Friday, August 28, 2009

“Even”, by Andrew Grant (Macmillan)

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An exciting, important new voice in the thriller genre

After stumbling across a dead body in a Manhattan alley, things go from bad to worse for David Trevellyan. In New York working for the British Consulate (on a “communications” contract), Trevellyan has no way of knowing how much trouble he’s about to be in. He is arrested at the scene, accused of murder (complete with bogus “witness”), and held in lockup for an eventful night with Dereck the Nazi. Then the FBI get involved and his employers (the British Government) wash their hands of him. This all happens within the first couple of chapters – so far, so very intriguing.

As accusations and his supposed crimes escalate, and seeing no way to clear his name through legitimate, normal channels, Trevellyan decides to take matters into his own hands, despite the risks this entails; relying on his special forces skills and training to run down the true murderer and uncover whatever conspiracy decided he needed to take a fall. Dodging bad-guys and bullets, this is the story of how he got even with those who betrayed him.

Andrew Grant has written a truly excellent thriller. That this is Grant's debut makes it all the more impressive; his plotting is expertly and perfectly paced, his characters are well-defined and realistic, and the antagonists are suitably sociopathic (Lesley, in particular, is psychopathic). David Trevellyan is one of the best new protagonists to come along since Mitch Rapp (Vince Flynn) or Mark Beamon (Kyle Mills): tough, cynical, gung-ho, sarcastic, and sometimes emotionally cold (to a frightening extent on the last page). The story is great – a classic tale of a lone wolf looking for revenge, with a modern and edgy twist that will keep you hooked until the surprising last paragraph. In fact, this is more like two stories – halfway through, it seems like the story could be wrapped up, but instead a new thread opens (slightly related to the first), and the action ratchets up again as the scope is broadened.

Even has the feel of the first two episodes of a TV series – one in which the main character could be described as the international equivalent of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher – it introduces us to the character, shows us his motivations and quite a bit of background detail (done at the beginning of every chapter as short asides, related to the coming events). If Even doesn’t set the author up for a long, successful career, then there is something very wrong in the world of publishing.

I would recommend you block out quite some time for starting this - it's impossible just to dip in and out; it’s highly likely that you will be swept up from the very beginning. Grant's writing style is fast and engaging, so you will be up late into the night.

Grant has introduced us to an excellent new hero, and can write a damn fine action thriller. In my opinion, this is better than Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series.

Very highly recommended.

For Fans of: Brett Battles, Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Daniel Silva, Lee Child, Robert Ludlum, Ian Flemming, Charles Cumming

Monday, August 24, 2009

“American Outrage”, by Tim Green (Sphere)

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Muck-Raking Journalism, Adoption, Political Corruption, and Old Money collide

Jake Carlson, a top TV journalist feeling his star wane, is asked by his adopted son to find his birth-mother. Still suffering from the death of his wife, Jake agrees to help Sam in the hope that it will help his son get closure, or help him cope with the death of his adopted mother (he’s been acting out in school, forced to see an “asshole” therapist).

Working for American Outrage, a show that rakes through the dirt and grime of American society (celebrities with a dollop of Jerry Springer, it seems), has given Jake many skills he’ll need to wade through the bureaucratic tides of information and roadblocks that are thrown up against him. But, Jake is stunned by what he unearths: an international crime syndicate, an illegal international adoption ring, and the corrupt-politician-patriarch of an old New York financial dynasty.

What first seemed like a simple task to help his son move on becomes a potential, career-defining scoop. However, as Jake digs deeper, taking his investigation further, those he is investigating start coming after him and Sam – the Armenian mob, the FBI, and on top of that, other journalists start sniffing around, hounding Jake and Sam for their story as well.

Considering Green’s position as a bestseller many times over, I have to admit to expecting a little more from American Outrage. It’s the first novel of Green’s that I’ve ever read, and I was hoping for something better. This is not to say that this is a bad novel – far from it, as there is plenty in here to interest and engage your every-day thriller fan. But, there was still something definitely missing; a certain x-factor to take it to the next level.

Green’s plotting and prose are fine, frequently well-paced, but there was something about the novel that failed to really hook me in. Perhaps it was the relationship between Jake and Sam – it didn’t feel like father-and-son, brothers, or friends, really. There was just something strange about the way their relationship had been written – forced, awkward to read, and just a little too strange for me to believe. Sam is also a weird kid. This was a serious pity; as I’ve mentioned, the premise and plotting is pretty good. What is interesting, however, are the dilemmas Jake faces when he uncovers information about Sam’s adoption – how much should he tell his son? How much should he know?

The story picks up about halfway through and you do get more involved in the events as the book progresses (the first half was just too slow and clunky), with some intense scenes, but it felt par-for-the-course and didn’t quite sizzle as much as some of the pull quotes would have us believe (they should always be taken with a pinch of salt, anyway).

I will admit to perhaps just not being in the right mood for this book when I read it, but having read many thrillers this one just didn’t live up to my expectations. I have another Green novel – his latest, Above the Law – which I shall read in the next few weeks, and hopefully that will make up for this slight disappointment. I shall keep you posted.

Once again, there is a good deal to recommend this novel – the plot, premise, writing, etc. – but for me the delivery was just missing something, even though it was still an enjoyable read in many places.

American Outrage has a few twists, some shocking moments (the lives of important characters are not always safe), and a second half that really picks up the pace and ratchets up the intensity – if you are patient and make it through the slightly plodding first half, you will be rewarded.

A cautious recommendation.

For fans of: Jason Pinter, Peter de Jonge, James Patterson, Nelson DeMille

Friday, August 21, 2009

“The Silent Man”, by Alex Berenson (Putnam/ Hutchinson)

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CIA super-spy John Wells averts nuclear disaster

In this third outing for John Wells, a small, well-funded terrorist cell has hatched a diabolical plan to smuggle nuclear warheads into America in the hope of dealing the US a physical and symbolic loss it will not easily recover from. Putting together a daring, intricate plot to steal the warheads from Russia’s largest nuclear weapons facility (highlighting some potentially terrifying holes in nuclear security), these terrorists are highly-trained, able to blend into their environment and deadly in their single-minded focus on bringing fiery, radioactive destruction to America.

John Wells, following the tense events of The Ghost Agent, is enjoying some downtime with his fiancĂ© and fellow CIA employee, Jennifer Exley, chafing at his new (ever-so-slightly) domesticated life. But, as Berenson shows us, Wells’s various adventures and missions have had a notable, lasting effect on his psyche, making it difficult for him to function properly out of the field. After a failed attempt on his and Exley’s lives, one of Wells’s decisions in The Ghost War comes back to bite him. Pierre Kowlaski, international arms dealer and all-round sociopath, decides to get revenge on Wells for the attack and humiliation he suffered in his own home. When Wells foils the plot on his life, Kowalski is left with only one possible out to save his life – offer information on the missing nukes, and pray Wells can see the bigger picture.

Berenson’s plotting and writing has slowed down a little (though, he was never as break-neck as Vince Flynn or James Rollins), and this makes The Silent Man a more tense, involved read – by revealing tidbits and his characters’ plans only piece by piece, he draws the reader along, keeping us hanging on ever sentence. The three strands of the novel take a little while to coalesce and meld, but when they do the pace does pick up. Wells’s impetuous nature works against him after his own botched attempt at revenge, taking a nice departure from traditional, infallible heroes common in this genre. Wells is no James Bond, and in many ways would make even Daniel Craig’s rougher, tougher version feel like a bit of a pansy. Also unlike James Bond, Wells (and also his colleagues) make quite a few mistakes, giving the novel and the characters a more genuine, realistic feel.

The author’s penchant for multiple international settings remains intact, taking Wells and others from the US to Germany, Switzerland, Iraq and Russia – all locations are perfectly realised and their different characters expertly portrayed.

There were nowhere near as many jokes in The Silent Man; not that The Faithful Spy or The Ghost Agent were comedies, but for this novel Berenson seems to have dispensed with all humour, keeping the novel’s intensity and tension notched up. This is maintained as Berenson shows how much counterterrorism relies on luck and happenstance – Wells and Co are aided unnervingly frequently by the terrorists bad luck, catching the scent of a clue only when the terrorists (or those helping them) slip up.

It’s difficult to hate the antagonists of the novel – Berenson does an excellent job of humanizing them, showing how it is circumstance that has shaped their prejudices and violent tendencies, twisting otherwise decent family men into jihadist murderers. As always, his characters –regardless of affiliation or centrality to the story – are all believably written. Each character’s flaws feel genuine and realistic, lacking clichĂ©d traits or typical thriller tropes (except for Wells being a somewhat psychologically damaged protagonist).

Berenson’s prose are expertly composed, his dialogue believable and natural, and his plot is very tightly constructed. Slower than previous novels, but still a completely satisfying read, The Silent Man is a truly timely novel, superbly written, and one that should please all fans of the international thriller genre. Recommended.

Also try: Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills, Andrew Britton, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva (particularly Moscow Rules – review coming soon), Charles Cumming

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

“The Sheriff of Yrnameer”, by Michael Rubens (RandomHouse)

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A new voice in Sci-Fi offers some of the best laughs of the summer

The Sheriff of Yrnameer is set in the future of our own universe. Planet Earth has been reduced to an irradiated pile of rubble, irradiated, still-glowing chunks of which can be purchased (no doubt for a reasonable price) with an “At least we got the terrorists” commemorative plaque.

Meet Cole: hapless space rogue, part-time smuggler, and the hero of the piece. When we first meet him, Cole is being dangled upside down by an alien creditor (also one of the universe’s most feared bounty hunters) who is trying to lay its eggs in Cole’s head – a most unpleasant punishment for gambling more than you can afford and then defaulting on the debt. The enforcer’s name? Kenneth.

His sidekick just stole his girlfriend. The luxury space yacht Cole just hijacked turns out to be filled with interstellar charitable types and their cargo of freeze-dried orphans (including one irritatingly gifted and earnest child, and one who is obnoxiously cute and therefore manipulative), as well as an especially loathsome stowaway. And Kenneth is still on their tail.

In this version of the future, corporations are king, and capitalism has run amok, taking over every facet of life. The Yrnameer of the title, is the last-remaining, unsponsored planet in the galaxy: an agrarian utopia populated to the saturation point by arty-types of all stripes. And so, reluctantly compelled to deliver these defenceless children and their wards to safety, Cole gathers his misfit crew for a desperate journey to the far reaches of the galaxy. Sadly for Cole, this legendary (artistic and independent) utopia is home to a murderous (and ever-shrinking) band of outlaws. After dealing with a few distractions on their journey (the aforementioned cargo of freeze-dried orphans; a corporate training satellite filled with bloodthirsty zombies), Cole eventually winds up on Yrnameer, only to find that the murderous bandits have threatened the planet’s inhabitants with death if they fail to hand over this year’s harvest (a good deed never goes unpunished). Through a series of unlikely, unfortunate events, Cole is appointed the Sheriff of the title, and charged with defending the people of Yrnameer, who couldn’t defend themselves from an irritated fly, let alone some bloodthirsty bandits – they’re artists, after all.

The Sheriff of Yrnameer is a delightfully absurd sci-fi romp. Robots and artificial intelligences are stupid, with the flexibility, imagination and vindictiveness of today’s government bureaucrats. Capitalism is everywhere – spam has graduated from our email junk-mail boxes to the high street; not to mention ad-bots, which appear pretty much everywhere (including orbit), and even dust motes carry brand-messages.

Perhaps the first author to get close enough to the spirit of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy to earn and deserve the comparison, Michael Rubens has written a mordant, highly amusing page-turner. Rubens approach to science fiction is original and observant, and The Sheriff of Yrnameer is a witty examination (and condemnation) of corporatism, dressed up in the guise of sci-fi-adventure-satire. He skewers the over-serious tropes of the genre, while retaining an obvious fondness for it, and sprinkles his tale with some fine geek humour (like Cole screaming “Control Z!” when he makes a wrong decision – “undo” on a PC). Every chapter will make you at least chuckle, which in these grim economic times is just perfect. The plot’s pace is pretty quick, and you’ll find yourself burning your way through the novel at a fair clip. Let’s just hope this isn’t the only one Rubens will write!

This is a great story, set in a wonderful (if also frightening) new universe (covered in sponsorship decals).

A must-read for all science fiction and comedy fans alike.

For fans of: Douglas Adams’s Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, Spaceballs, Galaxy Quest

Review posted from New York

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

“House Secrets”, by Mike Lawson (Atlantic)

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Joe DeMarco investigates the death of a reporter

In House Secrets, a retired congressman, Richard Finley, has asked Speaker of the House John Mahoney to look into the death of Terry Finley, his son and a reporter who covered politics for the Washington Post. Mahoney sends his ever-reluctant bagman, Joe DeMarco, to investigate; more to do a favour for Finley, as Mahoney (and the cops, coroner, and to begin with DeMarco) believes Terry’s death was an accident.

But, after just a little digging, DeMarco soon learns that Terry was investigating Senator Paul Morelli, a rising star considered a shoe-in for his party’s presidential nomination and the reputation of a golden boy. Terry was known as pursuing quixotic fantasy stories, more the demesne of the National Enquirer than the Washington Post, which only adds to DeMarco’s initial desire to quickly discard the investigation. This time, however, it appears that he might have been on to something big.

Senator Morelli has been luckier than most politicians, and his past has already been scrutinized by the press and political opponents, leaving DeMarco to believe that everything is above board and Terry’s death was nothing more than a tragic accident (kayaking in the dead of night is, after all, fraught with hazards). Then CIA agents and mobsters start to crawl out from under their rocks, and it becomes clear that things are not as they first seemed. Navigating through political waters populated by smooth-talking politicians and their Machiavellian aides, as well as thugs (either mob-affiliated or CIA-hired) and bitter, alcoholic political wives, DeMarco finds himself in a far more precarious position than he ever believed possible. Then, halfway through the novel, the ante is upped when things turn deadly.

Lawson’s writing keeps getting better and better. The first DeMarco thriller, The Inside Ring, was a perfectly balanced political thriller which definitely left me hungry for more. Despite a slightly uneven sophomore novel (The Second Perimeter), Lawson’s writing improved immensely in first House Rules and now again for House Secrets. DeMarco continues to be an engaging and interesting protagonist, and his supporting cast is equally well-written – especially the different relationships between DeMarco and, for example, Mahoney or Emma, his former-spy friend who has helped him out on numerous occasions and in ways even DeMarco isn’t aware of.

Brilliantly written, in House Secrets Lawson has taken the classic tale of Machiavellian political ambition in a new direction and made it his own. The plot unfolds at a perfect pace, twisting and turning, taking the reader in new directions and never predictable. The author’s prose are fluid and drag you forward through the novel, with dialogue that feels natural, and his realistic characters with plausible motivations and agendas.

An excellent story and plot, expertly executed. This is political thriller-writing at its most engaging, and once again I was left wanting more. Highly recommended.

Series Chronology: The Inside Ring (2006), The Second Perimeter/Payback (2007), Dead On Arrival/House Rules (2008), House Secrets (2009)

Also try: William Bernhardt, Kyle Mills, Vince Flynn, Steve Jackson, Brett Battles, Daniel Silva, Steve Martini, Brian Haig

For some reason, all but the first DeMarco novel have been released in the UK and US with different titles. House Secrets will be released in the UK through Harper’s on September 3rd 2009, as Dead Man’s List

Review posted from Lima, Peru

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

News: Brian Ruckley’s next

In advance of the mega-review of Ruckley’s The Godless World series, just a quick bit of news about his next piece of work. This time, he has turned his attention to early-19th Century Edinburgh for his upcoming novel, The Edinburgh Dead. Read more, here. The book sounds very interesting indeed, and we here at Civilian-Reader can’t wait!

The review for Winterbirth, Bloodheir, and Fall of Thanes will hopefully be up sometime in September or October (need to block out a decent amount of time for it, to do it justice).