Tuesday, April 28, 2009

“Cross Country”, by James Patterson (Century)


Alex Cross returns in his 14th thriller.

A brutal gang of killers is sowing despair and death by wiping out entire families. No one knows why, or whether the deaths are connected in some way. After a friend and her family are butchered by the pack of killers, Alex Cross becomes obsessed with finding and bringing down those responsible, following his prey – the psychotic “Tiger” – all the way to the Niger Delta in Africa.

There’s something comfortably predictable about each new Alex Cross novel from Mr. Patterson (who I think is now officially the most prolific author, perhaps ever). You know that the plotting and pacing of the novel are going to be hovering around warp-speed for the entire duration of the novel. You know the antagonists will be horrific in their brutality. You know that the novel will be richly detailed (even when you’d rather it wasn’t). You know that Alex Cross will save the day. And you know that the brutality of whatever investigation forms the plot will be balanced by the Hallmark-esque family life of our hero.

So much better than his ever-growing co-authored output, Cross Country fills all these criteria, and is an excellent addition to his flagship series. The scope is greater this time around, both in terms of sending our trusty protagonist abroad, but also weaving a number of issues and threads into the narrative, including: heroin trafficking, the international slave trade, and also the oil and gas trade.

For those who have become disillusioned by Patterson’s reliance on co-authored works, the return of Alex Cross should be welcomed and embraced. The schmaltz and overly-emotive elements of his other, shared works is largely absent (the saccharine-sweet Cross-family-life aside), and the series continues to be genuinely thrilling and gritty. Cross Country is proof that, when he puts his mind to it, the author still has it in him to pen thrillers of considerable quality. He will probably never again reach the quality of the first seven books in the series (see below), but this one is nonetheless a great read.

Recommended for any looking for a quick, entertaining thriller.

For Fans of: Andrew Grosse, Peter de Jonge, John Sandford, Robert Crais, Michael Connolly, Matthew Reilly, James Rollins, Lincoln Child & Douglas Preston

Series Chronology: Along Came A Spider (1993), Kiss The Girls (1995), Jack & Jill (1996), Cat & Mouse (1997), Pop Goes The Weasel (1999), Roses Are Red (2000), Violets Are Blue (2001), Four Blind Mice (2002), The Big Bad Wolf (2003), London Bridges (2004), Mary, Mary (2005), Cross (2006), Double Cross (2007), Cross Country (2008), Alex Cross’s Trial (10/09/2009 – in UK)

Monday, April 20, 2009

“The Ghost Agent”, by Alex Berenson (Arrow)


A second outing for Agent John Wells, hero of The Faithful Spy

John Wells is recuperating from the closing events of The Faithful Spy. While his body has healed, he is mentally unsuited to his new circumstances. Stuck in the US, no operations to keep himself active or occupied, he sneaks out at night for high-speed jaunts on his motorbike, much to the annoyance and concern of his boss and lover, Jennifer Exley. Together with Shafer, they form an agency-within-an-agency division of the CIA, granted considerable leeway and access after their previous successes.

Then, two operations come to Wells, Exley and Shaffer’s attention. The Taliban in Afghanistan are evolving, with better tactics resulting in more US casualties and fewer for them. At the same time, a mole in North Korea has had his cover blown, leading to the deaths of his extractors. Wells and company are put to work investigating these two developments, and Wells loses himself in the search for who has been providing and paying for the extra training. This leads them to another case, involving the revelation of a Chinese mole within the CIA, who has been feeding state secrets to his handlers for almost a decade.

Longer than The Faithful Spy, Berenson’s second novel is a much better book. While his debut was a great action thriller, there was something still missing from the mix. In The Ghost Agent, Berenson has pulled out all the stops, ratcheting up the action and tension, delving deeper into geopolitics, and overall writing a much, much tighter, more engaging and exciting novel. In almost every way, this is a better novel, improving on an already good writing style and gift for plotting. In this novel, Berenson allows the overall plot to unfold at a natural pace, never giving away too much, but not throwing any curve-balls, either. In many ways, this is a very realistic thriller; the bigger picture of power politics all to familiar and plausible.

As with the other great authors in this genre, there is more to The Ghost Agent than mere thrills. Berenson’s got a keen eye for international relations and history (especially the Chinese history he brings into the story), and paints interesting and rather accurate portraits of the national characters involved (Chinese, American, Iranian, etc.). His protagonists are well-drawn and three-dimensional, and the reader will therefore easily sympathise with their problems and characters (especially Wells and Exley’s troubled relationship). His antagonists are sufficiently twisted, though not comical or cartoon-ish, with General Li especially scary: cool, calculating, and single-minded, he’s a true believer who takes things into his own hands and won’t let anything (including the US and his own government) get in his way.

Double-agents, gunfights, espionage, plenty of political intrigue, suspense and action will ensure that any thriller junky will thoroughly enjoy the novel. Highly recommended.

For Fans of: Vince Flynn, David Baldacci, Andrew Britton, Kyle Mills, Lee Child, Charles Cumming, Brad Thor

Series Chronology: The Faithful Spy (2007), The Ghost Agent (2008), The Silent Man (2009)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

“The Common Lawyer”, by Mark Gimenez (Sphere)


A laid-back lawyer, a job too good to be true, and a desperate father. A recipe for trouble…

Andy Prescott deals with traffic tickets, and is perhaps the most laid-back lawyer in Texas. For $100, he’ll get you off any ticket. If he can’t, he’ll pay your fine. He’s never had to pay a fine. Andy lives in Austin, in the SoCo region south of the river – it’s hip, bohemian, grunge-chic, and not rich. His life seems idyllic – trail-biking, hanging with his friends at Guero’s, and checking out all the beautiful women. Not a care in the world, he lives for the adrenaline rush he gets from riding, and works just to pay the bills.

Then Russell Reeves, Austin’s resident billionaire philanthropist, steps into Andy’s office (just a room above a tattoo parlor), and offers him a job on retainer that seems too good to be true; offering more money than Andy’s ever seen, for some very easy legal work. Andy’s life starts to change in ways that would make anyone happy – money, women, a new loft in downtown Austin, the trail bike of his dreams, and still not a care in the world (except an objection to the higher taxes).

But, Reeves’s only son, Zach, is dying of a rare strain of leukemia. The billionaire is a desperate man, pouring billions into the search for a cure, but so far has come up empty. A break might have surfaced in his search to save his son, and Reeves will do anything and pay any price to pursue this miracle cure, even if it skirts the borders of legality, or if it puts Andy’s life in danger.

The Common Lawyer is a great novel, but it does not follow the usual path of a page-turning thriller. For a start, the ‘thriller’ elements don’t really kick in for about 90 pages. The brief prologue aside, the bulk of the first third reads like a guidebook to Austin – far from being boring, however, it is clear that the author has great affection for the city, and it helps to set the scene and the mood of his story’s location (not to mention make you want to relocate there).

The pacing for the story is good, but it is not lightning-fast like James Patterson’s novels. Like John Grisham, Gimenez allows the story to build gently, increasing the tension at a more natural pace, slowly revealing pieces of the overall story to draw the reader in. Unlike many authors, Gimenez is not afraid of describing scenes – often, thriller authors can come across allergic to any exposition, which helps the pace of a novel, but can sometimes make them seem incomplete. The Common Lawyer does not suffer from this, though some people might not be happy that it takes a while to get going.

Gimenez’s writing is very clear, well paced and plotted. You almost don’t notice that nothing much has happened to begin with, as you are drawn along by the narrative and Gimenez’s prose. The author manages to include some social commentary about wealth and how it changes us and life, as well as comments about Texas gun-law and -culture. It’s clear the author’s not fond of some of the things money can do, but the novel never becomes preachy, and is peppered with funny asides. Overall, the plot is interesting, raises plenty of moral and ethical questions about how far people are willing to go to save a loved one.

At first, I must admit to not being entirely taken with Andy. For the first couple of chapters, he came across like a smart-ass frat boy, almost too cool with his fist-pounds and “dude” utterances (ironic given he is supposed to have never bothered with fraternities at college). When we meet his family and friends, however, we realise he is more than just a lonely 29-year old, living in a city of beautiful women, but a conscientious member of the SoCo community. He really grows on you, as the novel progresses. Reeves, on the other hand, is difficult to dislike from the get-go. Incredibly generous, but also a desperate father, his actions and rationalisations may not be entirely moral or ethical, but they are certainly understandable, and often admirable, so it’s difficult to root against him.

The Common Lawyer is an addictive, compulsive read. With an interesting, flawed protagonist who matures as the novel progresses, a cast of well-drawn and diverse characters, and a great plot (not to mention the unexpected twist at the end), this is a must-read novel.

Highly recommended, The Common Lawyer will keep you reading into the night.

By the same author: The Colour of Law (2006), The Abduction (2007), The Perk (2008)

For fans of: John Grisham, Scott Turow, Richard North Patterson, James Sheehan, David Ellis, John Hart

Saturday, April 11, 2009

“Outcast”, by Aaron Allston (Century)


A new chapter in the saga begins…

Outcast follows directly in the footsteps of the Legacy of the Force series. The Galactic Alliance is in crisis following the death of Darth Caedus and the end of the Second Galactic Civil War. New Chief of State Natasi Daala (who first appeared in Jedi Search) orders the arrest of Luke Skywalker for failing to prevent Jacen Solo’s fall to the Dark Side. Behind this order is a growing backlash against the Jedi, as a result of media-fuelled resentment, and an increasingly hostile government, who decide that every Jedi should be accompanied by a government observer, to make sure they don’t take the law into their own hands, as usual. (In fact, when Daala is explaining this to Luke, she makes some interesting points about the episode in A New Hope, when Obi-Wan’s immediate reaction in the Mos Eisley Cantina is to chop off some limbs…)

After making a deal with Daala, Luke is exiled for ten years from Coruscant and contact with the Jedi Order he created – unless he can discover the cause of Jacen’s fall, and also put in place policies to help prevent history from repeating itself. Accompanied by his son Ben (from whose perspective much of the novel is written), Luke attempts to recreate the journey Jacen took in between the events of the New Jedi Order and Legacy of the Force series. His search brings him first to the planet Dorin, where his quest could have dire consequences for his life and his order, ending before it really has the opportunity to begin.

Meanwhile, two Jedi Knights have been affected with a strange condition, making them believe all other Jedi have been replaced with imposters. The causes of this are not revealed in Outcast, but they first appeared in Millennium Falcon, which suggests they will play a major part in the rest of this series.

There’s quite a lot that is set in motion in just one novel, but Allston has done a brilliant job of setting the scene for the eight books to come in the series, revealing just enough to get our interest piqued for future volumes. While Luke and Ben don’t feature as much in the novel as would be suggested by the main premise, their relationship has grown closer over the years, ever since Jacen tortured Ben in an attempt to turn him into a Sith. As previously mentioned, Ben gets a good deal of attention in this novel, perhaps slowly replacing Luke as a key character? Without knowing exactly how the series will progress, it’s difficult to be sure. The thread of the story involving Han and Leia doesn’t appear particularly relevant to the main storyline, but the fact that it’s included again suggests that all will be revealed later in the series.

Allston’s writing remains top-notch, and his prose is still tight and well-paced. Even though it is the first of nine, Outcast is a very engaging read, populated by some of our favourite characters, all of whom have grown and matured since we last read about them. There are obviously story-threads being laid out for future volumes, but they don’t feel forced, and instead will pique the readers’ interest for the series.

As an opening salvo in the next chapter of the Star Wars saga, Outcast will do exactly what it was intended to: grab your attention and make you eager for more. Exceptional sci-fi writing, Allston has proved that the Star Wars franchise has plenty of life left in it, and Fate of the Jedi is a promising addition to the ever-growing Star Wars canon, improving on the quality of the excellent Legacy of the Force.

Series Chronology: Outcast, Omen, Abyss, Backlash, #5-9 as yet untitled

For those wanting to get up-to-date quickly without having to wade through the ever-growing range of Star Wars novels, Del Ray have handily created this PDF primer to help set the scene.