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.
Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)
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.
One of Us by Asne Seierstad **** (of 4)
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.
Vulture Peak by John Burdett *** (of 5)
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.
Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews *** (of 4)
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.
All the Old Knives by Olen Steinhauer *** (of 4)
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.
A seriously mediocre suspense story about a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, young Mi-6 Agent doing secret agent stuff for God and Country in the waning days before Hong Kong is returned to China. Joe Lennox, his heart-of-gold broken by the only woman he could ever love returns to China just before the 2008 Olympics to try to prevent a terrorist bombing organized by Uigher separatists under CIA sponsorship. The plot is more credible than the main characters. March 2009
The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton *** (of 4)
In one of Crichton’s earliest books, he retells the adventure of professional, upper crust burglar who spends a year and a half masterminding the heist of gold bullion bound for British troops fighting in the Crimean War of 1854. What makes this book so readable is the expert story telling. Crichton mixes fictionalized conversation with testimony from Pierce’s trial, sprinkling the text with fascinating information about trains, British class consciousness, dog fights, and Victorian criminology among other topics. January 2007.
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel **** (of 4)
I loved it. A great piece of storytelling. Sure, there were plenty of bits worth analyzing-science vs. religion, first world vs. third world, true vs. false-but I liked it most of all because it was a great adventure.
A well-researched post 9/11 thriller with Middle Eastern jihadists sending dirty nuclear bombs toward American ports while being hunted down by an Israeli secret agent, an FBI operative, and a 30-something, good-looking female reporter all operating outside legal channels. Red Sea is Benedek’s first novel and it isn’t anywhere as smooth as the more accomplished masters of the genre like LeCarre and Crichton, but she’ll get better with time and the book is still a decent enough page turner. April 2008.