In the closing days of WWII, as the Allies are conquering northward up the Italian peninsula, the Germans are beginning to retreat, and their Italian allies are bumbling. Venice, though under German occupation still, is spared American bombing runs. In the lagoons beyond the city, Cenzo, an insightful, witty fisherman, finds an 18-year-old Jewish girl, Giula Silber, floating face down, but still alive. Giula and Cenzo must outwit Nazis hunting for her, black marketeers willing to trade in everything from human cargo to peace initiatives, Italian Fascists, anti-Fascist partisans, Cenzo’s dubious older brother, and his indomitable mother. The writing is spare, occasionally too lean, so that some characters and a few of their actions are veiled in a Venetian mist, and yet, in sum, the disorder imposed of a World War on the daily lives of bartenders, fishermen, backwater diplomats, and indulgent Italian mothers emerges with the piquancy of fresh polenta.
The second in the series involving a a love affair that really should never happen between an American CIA spy, Nathanial Nash and the mole he is running inside the KGB, Dominika Egorova. Egorova has risen high enough inside the Russian spy network she has become a confidante of Putin. The poor parts of the novel include flat portrayals of Russians — they are all venal, evil, and flatly portrayed destroyers of western values, equal and opposite descriptions of American spies whose patriotism is the only thing that might save the world, and love-making scenes between Nate and Dominika that sound like they were written by a spy who spent 33 years doing analysis for the CIA, which is what Matthews did before becoming a novelist. All the women in the book have breasts and nipples. Their love making skills are about as sexy as that last sentence. But, get over those superficialities, and the spycraft described in this book is so realistic, intriguing, suspenseful and informative you will readily plow up its pages and find yourself waiting impatiently for the next installment.
Even if you do not recall the Oslo terrorist attack in 2011, the opening pages of this book make certain there is no surprise. Anders Breivik, a native of Norway exploded a homemade bomb in front of the Prime Minister’s residence and then drove a van to Utoya Island to murder socialist youth. He killed seventy-seven people, most of them children, nearly all with gunshots to the back of the head. Only a few pages after it opens, the story returns to the beginning of Anders Breivik’s life to uncover in page-turning detail his development as a right-wing terrorist bent upon preserving Norway’s ethnic purity from creeping left-wing government policy. Breivik emerges as a psychotic, deranged killer. Except his continued lucidity and consistent logic of self-defined clarity of purpose make him indistinguishable from any member of ISIS, the Taliban, fanatical Israeli settlers and their Hamas counterparts, the routine gun-wielding mass shooters that too routinely make our headlines, more than a few affiliate of the NRA, and several of my neighbors in northwest Pennsylvania. One of us. This book explains what runs through their minds and then asks us to define the border between idealistic soldier of freedom and the psychologically impaired.
The fifth in the series for Royal Thai Police Detective, Sonchai Jitpleecheep. The crime this time takes place on the exclusively wealthy hilltop above Bangkok of the title’s name, Vulture Peak, where three bodies are discovered missing their salable organs. While the crime is being unraveled we learn about the global trade in kidneys, livers, corneas, and so forth, some of it legal, and much of it less so apparently driven by the amount of money people with failing organs are willing to pay for replacement parts. Unfortunately, the criminals in this book, a pair of psychopathic Hong Kong twins, a faceless (really, faceless) rapist, and a bipolar Hong Kong cop chasing them all are so over the top they strain credulity. Burdett is also trying to say something about the difference between Thai prostitutes that sell their whole bodies, but do so fully aware of the business they are in, and the poor and beleaguered of the world who sell parts of their bodies for cash out of true desperation.
An American CIA agent, Nathaniel Nash, is sent to Russia to manage a key asset at the same time a Russian intelligence agent, Dominika Egerova, is tasked with spying on Nate. While each attempts to seduce the other into becoming a double agent, without, of course, giving up their real identities, they also fight not to commit the cardinal error of falling truly in love. The author, Jason Matthews, is a former CIA operative himself so the tradecraft described in great detail rings uncannily true. Likewise, his description of CIA personalities and Vladimir Putin’s Soviet style directives of Russian secret services feels like a peek into world that must be going on all the time without our ever knowing. Matthews won an Edgar award for best first novel and his second book starring the same two spies, Palace of Treason, has just been published.
Henry and Celia were working for the CIA in Vienna when a hijacked plane landed and failure of international spy agencies to respond appropriately led to the death of everyone on board. Six years later the CIA is still trying to figure out what went wrong and Henry tracks down Celia before closing the books on the case. At the time of the hijacking Henry and Celia were lovers, spies, intelligence gatherers, in the midst of a frantic race to outsmart terrorists, and professional liars. Now, we watch as the two meet for dinner, both in search of a truth that has eluded them, and both playing all their spycraft skills at the table.
Let’s begin with the fact that I picked up the book after the world discovered that Robert Galbraith was a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling. I can’t help but think it colored my reading. For starters, Robert Galbraith was supposed to be a former special ops and spy kind of guy. Cormoran Strike, the private detective that needs to find a killer drinks, smokes, and womanizes, but not nearly as much if he had been written by a male author, which is to say he drinks to excess only once, smokes outside his office, and is exceedingly gentle with his temporary assistant, Robin. Is it just chance that the young woman with a sharp mind for investigating has the same name as Batman’s sidekick? J.K. Rowling’s forte is capturing scenes and making you feel like you can see everyone in their homespace. This story revolves around a supermodel who falls, or was pushed, from a third floor balcony. The model’s brother hires Strike because he believes she’s been murdered. The remaining characters are all Londoners and by the end you feel like you have just read a contemporary account of 21st Century England. And the mystery is terrific.
The premise is a standard trope of science fiction: time travel. And each time the main character, Jake Epping, closes his eyes and taps with his toe in the back of a dark closet to find the rabbit hole that will transfer him from the year 2011 to 1963 you have to be much better than me at suspending disbelief and suppressing a giggle. Nevertheless, once you’ve cross the threshold, you will find yourself fully enveloped by Stephen King’s prodigious talents as a master story teller. Epping has the chance to go back in history and uses his opportunity to undo injustices he knows will be forthcoming. He saves a friend’s friend from a crippling hunting accident and protects a work colleague from a father so abusive that in the late 1950s the drunken father murders his wife and most of his children with a sledge hammer. Then Epping takes on Lee Harvey Oswald with the aim of preventing the assassination of JFK. The reader is asked to overlook the fact that Epping’s primary means of preventing bad stuff from happening is to murder criminals before they commit their acts. Hmmm. If you get that far, then you can wrestle with what additional impacts a change in the past will have on the future and whether it makes more sense to devote yourself to the woman you love or, because there really isn’t any other option in this book, protect President Kennedy and the future of the world.
Two parallel stories. In France, a teenage girl, blind since the age of five, has her life turned upside down when the Germans invade Paris. She flees with her father to Saint Malo on the coast where she lives under German occupation in further darkness when, for her safety, she is secluded in an uncle’s house. The uncle, a veteran of WW I, suffers from PTSD and never leaves the house. Her father, as any solo parent of a blind girl would, does everything in his power to protect her. He constructs miniature wooden models of Saint Malo in case his daughter ever needs to learn to navigate its streets. Concurrently, a German orphan, also a young teen, faces a grueling life in the mines when he reaches the age of 15. Except, he is immensely adept at working radios, yet another means of communicating with the world without really seeing. His skills are so great he is drafted into the Nazi army, where he blindly follows orders, but worries that the orders are illogical, if not immoral. The book is aptly named.
The protagonist, he goes by several aliases, but Michel Khoury appears to be his given name, is a former Palestinian refugee from Lebanon. His parents were murdered during the Israeli-sponsored massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps. Stateless and without family he is fathered by a friendly Palestinian who in time teaches Michel the tradecraft of undercover work, but with a twist. The goal of these Palestinians is to undercut the piecemeal Oslo peace negotiations of the 1990s with a truly comprehensive peace deal between Palestinians and Israelis. Michel couriers secret messages around the world until he makes the one mistake no spy should ever make. He falls in love with a British girl. Khoury’s slow awakening to the entanglement of high stakes espionage he has entered, and how he has unwittingly dragged in his first real love, provides terrific suspense without ever dropping into polemic. Remarkably, this book eschews diatribe about middle eastern politics while embedding in one of the great political feuds of our time.