Book Review: 2 Tickets to Venice

Book Review: 2 Tickets to Venice

Venice is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Architecture, canals, and history make it a prime setting for a mystery. Two favorite authors, Donna Leon and Martin Cruz Smith have new books set in Venice that take you on two very different journeys to La Serenissima.

THE WATERS OF ETERNAL YOUTH by Donna Leon is as intricate, glorious, and absorbing as a trip to Venice can be. As Commissario Guido Brunetti, aided by fellow detective Claudia Griffoni—a relatively new character in this long-running series—and the stouthearted uniformed cop Vianello, you walk the riva on the side of the canals, you crowd with them into the vaporetto water taxis, and you share the unfamiliarity of riding in a car. But most of all, you are inside Brunetti’s questioning mind as he investigates an accident that occurred 15 years ago which left a young woman with the mind of a child. Her grandmother, an aging socialite who runs a foundation dedicated to preserving Venice’s sinking architecture, believes that her granddaughter did not fall into a canal by accident. With little to go on besides the woman’s intuition, Brunetti begins to poke into the past. In the process, he must enlist allies, manipulate his superior, and uncover a related murder. Much of the time he comes up empty-handed, but Leon leaves tiny clues like diamonds in a handful of sand. The writing is brilliant, the characters are fully-developed and endearingly familiar, while the meals never failed to make me reach for the nearest Italian cookbook.

Related: Book Review: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

Unlike some of the other Brunetti mysteries, this one closes with all the loose threads woven into a cloth nice enough to be the pocket square in Brunetti’s suit jacket. Having read all the books in the series, THE WATERS OF ETERNAL YOUTH (a double entendre but I can’t say why) ranks in my personal Top 5.

I consider Martin Cruz Smith to be a role model as well as a favorite writer. Author of the ground-breaking Arkady Renko series set in Russia, he is also the author of several romantic thrillers. After a several-year break, he’s got a new website, new book covers, and THE GIRL FROM VENICE is his new romantic thriller.

It is the end of WWII. Venice is riven by suspicion and fear as Mussolini’s regime cracks apart. The action takes in the muddy lagoon and poor fishing communities that fringe the palazzos and piazzas of central Venice.

Cenzo Vianello is a barefoot fisherman barely scraping by and hoping to avoid the chaos of his collapsing country. The Germans continue to prop up Mussolini and Cenzo frequently runs into German patrols as he cruises shallow waters in his fishing boat. One night, he finds a dead woman floating in the lagoon.

But Guilia isn’t as dead as he thought. A strong swimmer, she faked her death to escape the Gestapo after her Jewish family’s hiding place was betrayed. Cenzo kills a German officer hunting for her, then hides the girl in his fishing shack on the outskirts of Venice.

Cenzo has enough problems without being arrested for murder or protecting a Jewish girl for whom the Germans are hunting. He was kicked out of the Italian Air Force when he refused to gas the populace in Ethiopia. His wife was stolen by his brother who is a famous actor and Mussolini insider. She died, leaving Cenzo and his brother with unfinished business.

Turning to a friend from his piloting days, Cenzo arranges for Guilia to be spirited out of Venice and sent to the partisans in the mountains. When the friend is killed, Cenzo goes looking for Guilia in an odyssey that sees him reunited with his brother and plunged into the strange court of Mussolini’s last days. While I was impatient for him to find Guilia, the book became an absolutely fascinating glimpse into this suspenseful snippet of WWII history, as seen through some superbly drawn characters: a would-be moviemaker, the wife of a Brazilian diplomat who is also an expert forger, and Cenzo’s matinee-idol brother who is also Mussolini’s radio spokesman.

Cenzo is a marvelous vehicle for this fishing trip through Italian history. He’s decent and unambitious; hardly fearless but willing to find his courage when he needs to. The attraction between him and Guilia, who is both younger and much better educated, develops slowly. You can see why it works—improbably—for each of them.

All of the pieces were in place for a big and stunning climax, but the ending wrapped without too much drama. There were also a few continuity errors; for example, Cenzo and Guilia have sex for the first time at least twice. But the prose is beautiful, the sense of history is remarkable, and THE GIRL FROM VENICE is worth a prime spot on your TBR list.

These books made me wonder if Venice is really sinking. Yes, it is. Read about the looming issue in this article from The Guardian.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Book Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

Book Review: Claws of the Cat by Susan Spann

CLAWS OF THE CAT is one of those books you wish you’d written, but grudgingly know you’d never come up with the premise.

Related: Author to Author with Susan Spann

Author Susan Spann takes us to imperial Japan in 1565. The Jesuits, in the form of Portuguese priest Father Mateo, have a toehold in Kyoto, from which he has the approval of the regional shogun, or warlord, to conduct missionary work. A shinobi, a covert agent trained in stealth—read ninja—has been assigned to protect him.

Hiro Hattori, from the distant city of Iga, is the shinobi. Hiro’s point of view, and whispered backstory, guides us through this exciting journey. The cracks in feudal Japan are beginning to show, yet society is still delicately balanced with rules and norms.

A teahouse “entertainer” girl, Sayuri, who has converted to Christianity, is found with a dead client. Father Mateo comes to see what he can do for this member of his nascent flock. Although Sayuri was found with blood on her kimono, she insists she woke to find the client’s throat slashed and the room bloody. The dead man’s enraged son, a local policeman, is entitled by law to execute his father’s killer. He gives Father Mateo two days to prove the girl is not the killer and find the real one; if the priest cannot the son will kill both the girl and the priest.

Hiro is bound to by oath to protect the priest. In only 48 hours, he must find a brutal killer, a task made even more difficult by his lack of authority, the uncooperative attitude of the teahouse owner, and the societal conventions which rule conversations, even those about murder.

All of Hiro’s training and resources are put to use. He and Father Mateo, both engaging characters who have achieved understanding and friendship in the two years they have been thrown together, play off each other as they question those who might have something to do with the murder. Clues lead in all directions. Why did the teahouse owner secretly burns her ledgers? Why did the dead man’s daughter, a female samurai, inherit everything instead of her brother, as would be normal? Why did the dead man seek to become Sayuri’s “patron” at the teahouse, i.e. take her as his mistress, when his brother wanted to buy her contract from the teahouse and marry her? What did the dead man’s death have to do with a rice trader who visited the teahouse yet also sought to buy guns from a Portuguese trader?

The misleading clues mount up, yet Hiro leads us through the maze as only a ninja can. He knows that “a shinobi’s first and greatest defense is misdirection” and that it works both ways. Spann effortlessly brings us into Hiro’s world of both violence and grace where katana swords and ritual burial armor coexist with the intricate art of flower arranging. The details reflect rigorous research, down to the measure of a room based on the number of tatami mats and the cadence of the characters’ speech. You can almost smell the cherry blossoms.

The ending is terrific. Hiro is able to pick out the anomalies and solve the case. Justice is meted out, Japanese-style. Just enough of Hiro’s backstory is there, too, like breadcrumbs along the path, to entice the reader on to more of this absorbing, authentic, and superbly written series.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Book Review: A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

Book Review: A Madras Miasma by Brian Stoddart

In A MADRAS MIASMA, New Zealand author Brian Stoddart takes us to India in 1920 with an extraordinary sense of place and time. India is on the brink of explosion and the murder mystery is another lit fuse on the powder keg.

Related: Author to Author with Brian Stoddart

British colonial authorities have created a culture unto themselves, with few ties back to the sceptered isle and unique social norms. Indian society is stratified and divided over continued loyalty to Britain. Discontent and political unrest simmers below the surface.

Enter Superintendent Christian Le Fanu, Indian Police Service in Madras (today’s Chennai), who stands on both sides of the deepening divide. He’s British, yet has no ties back to England where his soon-to-be-ex-wife has fled. A combat veteran of WWI, he now has an aversion to blood. A long-time resident of India, he’s part of the British ruling class but not in it. He doesn’t live in the British enclave part of town, his familiarity with Indian ways got booted him out of the golf club, he gives his Muslim Indian sergeant real responsibility, and he is secretly sleeping with his Anglo-Indian housekeeper. Roisin is smart and attractive but her mixed ethnicity makes her a pariah.

Le Fanu and Sergeant Habi investigate the murder of a young British woman whose body is dumped in a polluted canal. She’s identified as one of the “fishing fleet,” young women who come to India from Britain “fishing” for a husband. She and another woman made the rounds of parties where they met diplomats, military officers, and the upper crust of colonial society. The autopsy reveals that the woman had sex and took morphine before death.

The investigation proceeds as a series of interviews conducted with excruciating British politeness. In between, Le Fanu has to placate the higher-ups, including the impeccably drawn martinet Arthur Jepson, who habitually cracks his riding crop against his shoe. The secondary characters are historical figures, accounting for all the surnames starting with “W.”

Le Fanu’s murder investigation implicates senior British figures in Madras. At the same time, an Indian demonstration prompts British troops to fire into the crowd, killing many. The political fallout from the massacre shakes the entire British ruling structure in India, making Le Fanu’s own position precarious. He’s an appealing man in a sea of political operators, but his enemies know there are chinks in his armor and they are ready to exploit them.

MIASMA is a meticulously researched historical mystery. In many ways, it reminded me of Ken Follett’s THE KEY TO REBECCA set in WWII Egypt; the crowded, noisy and politically precarious setting, the rigidity and stuffiness of British colonial rule, a British officer who has sympathy toward the local population and rides a motorcycle.

No Nazi spies in 1920, of course. Stoddart stays authentic to the world he’s pulled us into, with villains whose moral codes have been replaced by a sense of abiding privilege.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Book Review: The Trespasser by Tana French

Book Review: The Trespasser by Tana French

THE TRESPASSER by Tana French is the 6th novel in the chronicles of the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. Each is narrated by a different member of the squad, whose private life is somehow linked to—and tragically impacted by—the central crime. When in Dublin last year, I visited legendary bookstore Hodges Figgis and found a whole section devoted to Irish crime novels, in which French’s books held pride of place. THE TRESPASSER shows why.

Related: Book Review: In The Woods by Tana French

The narrator this time is Antoinette Conway, the sole female detective on the fabled Squad and I couldn’t help noticing the similarity to Detective Emilia Cruz in Acapulco. Both are tough, athletic, determined, and the target of their male colleagues. Neither have ever met their father. To round off the similarities, Conway is half Latino.

But unlike Emilia Cruz, Conway’s mood is sour and her temper is explosive. She’s fed up to here with garbage from fellow detectives. Her reports go missing, someone broke into her gym locker to pee on her stuff, and she and her partner Moran are permanently stuck on the graveyard shift.

Conway is ready to chuck it all for a lucrative bodyguard job when she and Moran are dispatched to investigate the murder of Aislinn Murray, an attractive secretary killed at home by a blow to the head.

A little scratching reveals that Aislinn was about to have dinner company. Guileless Rory Fallon owns a bookstore across town and has had a few dates with Aislinn. He claims that she never opened the door when he arrived but closed circuit cameras reveal he’d been stalking the victim for several weeks.

Enter the Murder Squad’s resident Mr. Cool, aka Detective Breslin. He’s got money, charm, flash suits, and a game show host smoothness that Conway sees as weapons he’ll use to discredit her and force her out of the Squad. Breslin is sure that poor Fallon is their killer, despite no witnesses or hard evidence. Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game of Conway and her partner trying to run down more angles, while he tries to circumvent their orders and nail Fallon. This makes for some great interrogation room dialogue. Every conversation reveals more competing agendas and French keeps the tension high.

In the background, Conway has her own Peeping Tom, Rory Fallon wasn’t the only one stalking Aislinn Murray, and there’s a subtle father-daughter relationship comparison happening. Aislinn Murray was obsessed with finding her long-lost father while Conway doesn’t even ask her father’s name when he finally turns up.

The plot is solid but the most engrossing thing about THE TRESPASSER is Conway’s deep point of view. It’s a mix of in-your-face Irish slang, slick cop jargon, and a harsh and headstrong irreverence for everything in her way. Conway is plowing through life with her fists up, looking for the fight; snarling and snapping and loaded with the local equivalent of Red Bull.

Get ‘em up, Rocky. THE TRESPASSER is a knockout.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

What Happened to the Jesse Stone Mystery Series?

What Happened to the Jesse Stone Mystery Series?

When mystery author Robert B. Parker passed away, I mourned the end of the Spenser and Jesse Stone mystery series, as well as his Westerns featuring the enigmatic Virgil Cole. Sunny Randall, not so much, as I never quite connected with the female PI and her annoying ex-husband issues.

Like many others, I was of two minds when it was announced that Parker’s novel franchises would continue but be written by other authors. Excitement that more books with favorite characters would be forthcoming, doubt that others could capture the style that made Parker’s books so successful.

Related: Book Review: Cold Service by Robert B. Parker

Ace Atkins took up the Spenser series and really delivered, even as he introduced a new character (Sixkill) who helped expand Spenser’s world. The dialogue still drives the narrative, the pace is still swift, Spenser’s code is still in tact, and Susan and Hawk are still at his side. For the most part, the transfer of authorship has been seamless.

The Jesse Stone series was always a distant second to Spenser in my reading affections and I didn’t keep up as the series grew under new authorship. Parker wrote 9 novels about the ex-minor league shortstop who washed out of the Los Angles Police Department because of his drinking and lands on his feet as the chief of police in Paradise, Massachusetts. After Parker’s death, the franchise was handed off to Michael Brandman who wrote 3 novels, and then to Reed Farrell Coleman who has also written 3.

Has Jesse Stone’s road been as smooth as Spenser’s?

To decide for myself, I read two early Jesse Stone novels, TROUBLE IN PARADISE and STONE COLD, then the last two in the series, THE DEVIL WINS and DEBT TO PAY, both by Coleman.

Here’s my verdict:

The new books dive even more deeply into Jesse’s character. We spend more time inside Jesse’s head as he remains absorbed by his relationships with alcohol, his ex-wife Jenn, and his missed chance to be the world’s greatest shortstop. Jesse is flawed, and Coleman is making the most of it but still in Parker’s nuanced way. Jesse still talks to his picture of baseball great Ozzie Smith. Dix the therapist is back, too, both in Jesse’s thoughts and in scenes in which the two men discuss Jesse’s problems.

In early books Jesse has a number of female friends with benefits; in the later books he’s faithful to a new character named Diana, a former FBI agent now a security consultant in Boston. But there’s a precipice beckoning to Jesse in the form of the new Paradise medical examiner. Tamara is an attractive woman with her own drinking problem. I sense an undercurrent of doubt that Jesse can continue to resist this doubly fatal mix of woman and drink. If you are not tired of alcoholic main characters in mystery novels, then the tension is grand.

Related: Character Sketches, The Detective Emilia Cruz Mystery Series

For those who remember Spenser’s run-ins across several books with the Gray Man, Coleman has introduced a similarly continuing bad guy named Mr. Peepers. I’m not sure why Mr. Peepers has spent the last 20 years carrying out his twisted agenda of murder and torture, which would help the believability angle, but he’s a worthy opponent for Jesse.

Two things stand out as significant differences between early and later Jesse Stone novels. First, Coleman has departed from Parker’s staccato pace, except in some dialogue scenes where Jesse does the man-of-few-words act that has always been a character trademark. The pacing is slower and the paragraphs much longer. Indeed, in THE DEVIL WINS, the normally laconic Jesse delivers a 1.5 page paragraph explanation of how he caught the bad guy. Despite the chunky paragraphs, the prose is smooth, although a few awkwardly phrased sentences stand out. The villain’s voice is heard at pivotal moments, the same as when Parker was writing.

Second, there is the assumption that the reader knows the entire series’ backstory. For example, in THE DEVIL WINS, references were made to a person named Crow. This villain appeared in the early STONE COLD, but he and Jesse did not meet. But some 10 books later, it is obvious that both Jesse and Paradise cop Molly Crane have had a previous interaction with Crow. Alas, we don’t know the context or who Crow is. I’ll have to read more of the post-Parker books to find out.

Bottom line is that Jesse Stone is one of mystery fiction’s most complex, irritating, and heroic characters. Coleman has both captured and expanded this persona, while creating villain-based plots that manipulate Jesse’s flaws to good effect.

CARMEN AMATO

Mystery and thriller author. Retired Central Intelligence Agency intel officer. Dog mom to Hazel and Dutch. Recovering Italian handbag addict. 

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

Book Review: Midnight Sun by Jo Nesbo

For those mystery lovers who reveled in Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series, his new stand-alone novel Midnight Sun will be a bit of a surprise. Midnight Sun is easier on the blood pressure than Harry, with a sympathetic protagonist and the wooded setting of Norway’s  remote Finnmark province, home to Norway’s indigenous Laplanders, also known as the Sami people.

Related: Visiting Norway, Mystery Author Style

Ulf is on the run from an Oslo drug kingpin named The Fisherman and gets off the bus in the Sami village of Kasund. It’s a random choice but a lucky break: Ulf meets Lea and her son Knut who buy his story of coming for the grouse hunting. Ulf is soon installed in a hunting cabin with the rifle of Lea’s late husband, thought to be drowned at sea.

As Ulf considers what to do next, his backstory unfolds. It includes a drug-dealing past, his daughter’s death from leukemia, and his inability to shoot a rival dealer. He’s got a pile of money from the rival dealer, which The Fisherman wants back, and Ulf knows the hunt is on until The Fisherman sees Ulf’s dead body.

Like The Blackhouse by Peter May, I had the feeling that Nesbo wanted to write about a place and people that get little attention. He did so very well, using Ulf as the outsider looking in and sharing his experiences with us. Nesbo serves up great local color: the reindeer scratching its antlers against the cabin, the sun shining at all hours, the Sami’s homemade hooch and 3-day celebrations. Nesbo also gives us a window into a local brand of puritanical Christianity that both helps and hinders Ulf’s situation.

The plot was hugely satisfying, if largely linear and without the heft of the Harry Hole series.  I would have liked more about the remote Finnmark plateau; the harshness of the weather, the psychological impact of 24 hour days so close to the Arctic Circle, the (only hinted at) tension between the Sami people and central government in Oslo.

Verdict: A nicely paced thriller with a unique and absorbing setting.

Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

Book Review: The Blackhouse by Peter May

In The Blackhouse by Peter May, the setting is the remote, windy, and rainswept Hebrides islands off Scotland’s western coast. The murder is gruesome and mimics a recent killing in Edinburgh being investigated by police detective Fin McLeod.

Fin’s young son has just been killed by a hit-and-run driver. His lukewarm marriage has fallen apart. So he heads to the Isle of Lewis, where he was born and raised, to vent his grief and see if the two murders are connected.

The Blackhouse is rich, dense, and real. More than just a typical whodunit, I got the feeling it was written to illustrate a unique place few have seen and fewer still have truly experienced. Life in the Hebrides is remote and difficult, squeezed between rock and ocean and constantly buffeted by winds which have scoured trees off the land.

The setting is another character, one both capricious and perverse. May often refers to the changing sky, the remorseless wind, and the rage of the ocean and never forgets their impact on a scene. Local customs are rooted in the simple need to survive. Religion is as severe and unforgiving as the wind. Both physical and emotional comforts are luxuries few can afford.

While the setting sets The Blackhouse apart from the majority of tartan noir novels, May also uses flashbacks unlike any mystery author I have read. The book is written in third person, with Fin as the central character. But Fin also narrates many flashbacks of his youth on the Isle of Lewis, which mostly deal with his childhood friend Artair, whose father tutored both of them, and Marsiali, the woman Fin alternately loved and discarded until she finally left him and married Artair.

Fin’s flashbacks don’t come at us in chronological order but are seemingly random (but highly relevant, as we will see) memories prompted by present-day encounters. Fin runs into the unhappily married couple Artair and Marsiali. Artair is now an abusive drunk and his son has gotten a girl pregnant. Donald, another friend, is a clergyman and father of the pregnant girl.

The big climax comes with a hefty dose of local Lewis custom: the annual 12-man trip to a tiny and remote rock in the Atlantic to kill guga sea birds, considered a local delicacy. The custom has been going on since time immemorial and to be included in the guga hunt brotherhood is a rare honor.

It is at this point, we realize what a master storyteller may truly is. He draws all the threads—both from the flashbacks and the present-day murder investigation—into whole cloth as thick and durable as the Harris tweed still woven on the island. The ending is huge and heart-pounding.

The Blackhouse is the first of May’s trilogy about Fin’s return to the Isle of Lewis. All use the flashback device to good effect, although in the second book, The Lewis Man, the flashbacks belong to a man suffering from dementia, which is handled brilliantly. In The Chessmen, we are back to Fin’s flashbacks, most of which deal with his high school days but lack the strength of The Blackhouse’s Artair-Marsiali tension.

May has also collaborated with photographer David Wilson on a small coffee table book of the Hebrides. The book beautifully captures the moody sky and ocean so close to the Arctic Circle and contains excerpts of some of the novels. My one complaint about Hebrides is that occasionally May’s description of the land was on the left facing page and a book excerpt (using a subtly different font) was on the right. The format broke up the continuity of both. But the Hebrides also tells the story of how May, a BBC producer, came to the Hebrides in the first place and their impact on his life.

Verdict: Read these books. Now.

Book Review: A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley

Book Review: A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY by Michael Stanley is a deeply authentic visit to Botswana, hosted by Detective David “Kubu” Bengu of the country’s Criminal Investigation Division. The novel stands alone but if you like international culture wrapped up in a mystery, I recommend all the books in the Detective Kubu mystery series.

Kubu, which means “hippo” in Setswana, Botswana’s native language, is an apt nickname. Alexander McCall Smith, author of the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, perhaps the best known books set in Botswana, would describe Kubu as “traditionally built.” The book even opens with Kubu’s dream of eating an enormous meal.

The murder of Kubu’s father, a traditional healer suffering from Alzheimer’s, shocks everyone. Kubu is shut out of the investigation to keep from prejudicing any future prosecution and is assigned to look into the suicide of a government official dealing with mining licenses. Botswana is a top producer of diamonds and uranium.

With a little help from an American consultant, Kubu realizes that the suicide is really murder. Murky connections lead to a village debate over expansion of a Chinese-run uranium mine. The tribal chief has the final say over the expansion but doesn’t know his son has made a deal with the Chinese. The son gets the young unemployed of the village on his side by plying them with cheap Shake Shake beer in shabeens—the local bars.

The chief announces his decision not to allow the expansion at a town hall event, which erupts in violence. The chief, council members, and police are killed. Election of a new chief is supposed to rotate between five tribes, but the late chief’s son takes advantage of the turmoil to claim the throne and make good on his promise to the Chinese mine mangers.

Meanwhile, to get Kubu out of the way of the investigation into his father’s death, he is sent to New York for an Interpol conference. His trip perfectly captures wintry New York City through the eyes of someone who lives without snow, skyscrapers, crowds, or constant urban abundance. He didn’t want to go to the conference, but it gives him insights needed to break open the mining drama at home. Kubu may be a product of Botswana, a small country, but he knows how to find the wider context.

At times the narrative is a bit slow, Kubu is admonished too many times for sticking his nose into his father’s murder investigation, and I guessed the connection between Kubu’s father and the Chinese mine far earlier than he did. These nits are forgiven because I really admire how the novel, and the entire mystery series, demonstrates the critical issues facing Africa today: unemployment, corruption, violence against women, tension between traditional authority and the laws of the state, and China’s growing investment and influence at the local level. The issues are handed deftly and naturally; they are simply part of Kubu’s landscape.

As a reader, you are caught up in the tension between old and new as you feel the bewilderment of the chief as he attempts to navigate the modern world by relying on tribal customs. You march into the Chinese compound with Kubu, and realize that a fiefdom has been carved out to take and never to give.

A DEATH IN THE FAMILY starts as a murder mystery. But it ends as a snapshot of contemporary Africa that should be mandatory reading by anyone travelling to or studying the continent. Highly recommended.

Book review of Detective Kubu mystery series novel

Book Review: Jihadi Apprentice by Bruns & Olson

Book Review: Jihadi Apprentice by Bruns & Olson

I write mysteries and thrillers and love to read them, too. In this book review, I look at JIHADI APPRENTICE by David Bruns and J.R. Olson, a very modern thriller with an insider’s ring of authenticity.

With a compelling scenario and characters at cross purposes, JIHADI APPRENTICE exposes the  motivations and manipulations of global terrorism as well as the Herculean burden carried by those hunting terrorism’s ringleaders. In the style of Ken Follett’s TRIPLE or Brad Thor’s latest offering, we watch the bad guys with mounting dread and pray for the good guys who must work in sync but are primed for mistrust.

Related: A Chat with Thriller Author David Bruns

The centerpiece of the story is the recruitment of Aya, a Muslim teen in Minneapolis, by Imaan, a Somali folk singer who uses her fame within the global Somali diaspora to recruit terror cells. Their interpersonal dynamics draw on the Somali community’s search to find its footing in American society in Minneapolis; Imaan is easily able to exploit the restless Aya and put words in her mouth. But Imaan is being manipulated as well, and we see up close and personal how terrorist leaders ruthlessly use others to advance their creed.

Related: Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception by David Bruns and JR Olson

Ranged against Imaan and her shadowy puppetmaster are three US officials we met in the authors’ WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION; an workaholic FBI agent, a Navy officer with a covert operations background, and an intelligence officer with an unlikely working relationship with an Iranian counterpart. They each have a piece of the puzzle when it comes to hunting terrorists and stopping recruitment, but are operating blind for the most part, digging up fragmentary information, encountering red herrings, and coping with  competing agendas. The job takes its toll, notably on the romance between the FBI agent and the Navy officer. Even the secondary characters are well drawn and relateable. In particular, a female Mossad agent makes a powerful cameo that illustrates the risk of collecting intelligence in the terrorists’ territory.

Related: Book Review Cheatsheet: Learn How to Write a Review that Matters

The pacing is terrific, the situations are believable, and the action keeps up a truly unrelenting tempo. The last quarter of the book is like dominoes falling; you can’t help but keep reading. The only problem with JIHADI APPRENTICE is that the next book with this cast of characters won’t be here soon enough.

Get it here on Amazon

Verdict: An exciting and contemporary page-turner in which terrorism is a high-stakes game played with people’s lives on a global scale.

 

Book Review: Bangkok Rules

Book Review: Bangkok Rules

Carl Engel is hardly the typical hero of a mystery series but he’s the main character in BANGKOK RULES by Harlan Wolff. The mostly drunk Brit has been in Bangkok for 30 years, surviving as a fixer who plays both sides of every local intrigue. He is well known to both the long-term expatriates and the succession of Thai government and military officials who swing in and out of power. There is money to be made out of Thailand’s perpetual chaos and Carl has the bravura and connections to be that person. The income isn’t steady but he’s got a tab going in every bar and that’s what seems to matter for the crusty Brit.

He’s asked to find a man likely hiding out in Bangkok under an assumed name. The employer is a wealthy American who says the missing man is his brother. Carl takes the lucrative case, only to find that the target has become a Thai citizen with an assumed ethnic name. The employer is soon murdered and Carl must use all of his colorful contacts to figure out why. The case ties back to the Vietnam War and an elaborate drug smuggling ring. Meanwhile, a serial killer is rampaging through Bangkok and yes, the two cases tie together with a clever and exciting ending.

The plot was intricate and the descriptions wonderful. The reader can see Bangkok’s seedy dives, the cranky domestic help, the has-been expatriates secondary characters who live in Carl’s world. Some of the dialogue needed the word “said” sprinkled in, and Carl jumped to a few conclusions, but my biggest issue was with Carl’s drinking. He’s a well written character but yet another in a long line of literary alcoholic detectives.

The Amazon description says the book has been optioned for film. A great role for Kenneth Branagh now that he’s done playing Kurt Wallander.

Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception

Book Review: Weapons of Mass Deception

Like spy and military thrillers? Books based on current events? Polished prose? Great plots? WEAPONS OF MASS DECEPTION is for you.

WEAPONS is a high caliber thriller, using a very plausible Iraq War scenario as its core: Saddam’s sons move the country’s nuclear weapons to Iran for safekeeping as US forces begin to move against his regime. They use the same frenemy as welcomed Iraq’s fighter aircraft in the Gulf War, knowing the terrible gamble they are taking.

That frenemy turns out to be three half-brothers. One is a ayatollah, one a military intelligence officer, and one whom the other two are able to manipulate into joining a sleeper cell in South America.

Related post: Book Review: Smokescreen by Khaled Talib

The action moves from the Middle East to the US where the action follows main character Brendan McHugh as he graduates from the Naval Academy, becomes a SEAL, and fights in Iraq. By accident he runs into one of the Iranian brothers, beginning an odd connection that underpins the rest of the novel. McHugh’s career is stalled by a serious combat injury, taking him in an unforeseen direction during which he comes full circle back to the Iraq war and the hunt for nuclear weapons.

Some of the best parts of the novel are scenes in which the three Iranian brothers create their private nuclear arsenal with the appropriated Iraqi weapons. They are a team in some ways, but also three separate entities who have different motivations, backgrounds, and personal lives. The set up is plausible and wonderfully described with a great visual narrative.

After such a phenomenal story, the ending wasn’t the big deal I expected but upon reflection probably more in keeping with real life. I hope this writing team of Bruns and Olson has more to offer and the McHugh character is welcome to repeat his starring role. Highly recommended.

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Book Review: The Ragman Murders

Book Review: The Ragman Murders

Based on a true family story, THE RAGMAN MURDERS is clearly a labor of love. The novel tells the story of two immigrant families, the Amatos and the Tassones, and the circumstances that bring them into conflict within Hartford CT’s teeming immigrant neighborhoods in the early 1900’s. I read it at the same time that PBS brought out its documentary “The Italian-Americas,” and the descriptions in RAGMAN resonated deeply.

RAGMAN’s action moves between an interview with one of the grown daughters of Maria Carmella and Guiseppe Amato, and flashbacks of the Amatos’ immigration experience from Serra San Bruno, Italy. Other flashbacks show Guiseppe’s involvement with the Black Hand gangsters that preyed on newly arrived fellow Italians, and the story of the tragedy-prone Tassones. While the back-and-forth narrative is well explained, the construction would have been tighter if there had been more of the storytelling daughter in the flashback sequences, perhaps showing that she and the father had a special relationship. That would have also justified the plot twist (no spoilers!) at the end.

That point notwithstanding, RAGMAN is a piece of the Italian-American immigrant experience. It is based on true events and has so many characters because all of them actually took part in those events. News stories no doubt shaped some of the narrative, and lend a period writing style to the last fourth of the book. Highly recommended for those who are interested in the history of Italian-Americans and Italian immigration to the US.

Coming 17 July

AWAKENING MACBETH is a serialized novel of romantic suspense by Carmen Amato. Episodes are released on carmenamato.net, Pinterest, and Facebook on Tuesdays and Fridays. Carmen’s other novels are available on Amazon and include THE HIDDEN LIGHT OF MEXICO CITY as well as the Detective Emilia Cruz mysteries CLIFF DIVER, HAT DANCE, and DIABLO NIGHTS. Please use the link below to sign up for the Mystery Monthly mailing list for exclusive excerpts, book release news, and sales alerts.

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