I last compiled a dozen of my reading hits-and-misses in January, 2017 and am overdue for a new list. Pickings remain slender in the “real-life thriller” self-named category and I welcome suggestions from True Lies Nation.

 

The third book in the Lies series, End of Lies, comes out in the fourth quarter. It’s with an editor and, if my number one reader (wife Lai Fan) is to be believed, it’s the fastest-paced, easiest-to-read and best book in the series. (No bias here.) Anyone hankering for something to read in PDF format and not minding typos, EOL would benefit from a handful of Beta readers. (Shoot me an email.)

 

I’m pleased to report that old (in every sense of the word!) friend Jim Hawes published Cold War Navy SEAL: My Story of Che Guevara, War in the Congo, and the Communist Threat in Africa in April this year. The hardback edition sold out, but at long last there’s an edition out on Kindle (which I just discovered). Anyone wanting to read up on a real-life American hero should click through to a pair of True Life blog entries from yesteryear:

 

Jim Hawes in the Gulf of Tonkin goading the NVA

Jim Hawes in the Congo with Mad Mike Hoare vs Che’ Guevara

 

Better still, buy the book! My mother’s seventy-eight and she’s read my copy (sitting at her home awaiting collection), and really enjoyed it despite not being a reader of this genre. It’s a great true-life story about an unknown chapter in US modern history.

 

Happy book hunting and have a great summer.

 

Bradley West

 

Singapore, July 2018

Real-Life Thrillers

 

 

 

A Poison Tree (4-stars) by John Dolan (2014). Infidelity, self-loathing, and murder in this prequel to the Ko Samui-based books.

A Poison Tree is the third book in John Dolan’s Time, Blood and Karma trilogy, but the novel properly sits at the front of the chronological queue. Dolan describes the antecedents of the anguish protagonist David Braddock displays in earlier books (Everyone Burns and Hungry Ghosts) which take place in Thailand in the years following A Poison Tree. There’s lots of soul-searching in Dolan’s books, all if thoughtful and credible, but not why I read this genre. A Poison Tree features rather more introspection than its predecessors, but strong story lines and well-developed characters more than compensate. At its core, it’s a multiple murder mystery combined with a family tragedy with a few doses of infidelity thrown in. I now appreciate how Braddock came to be the mess he is once he opens his detective agency in Ko Samui. Fans of both character studies and thrillers will find plenty of hooks in Time, Blood and Karma. Ideally, start with A Poison Tree, then read Everyone Burns followed by Hungry Ghost.

 

Everyone Burns (4-stars) by John Dolan (2012). British detective in paradise battles inner demons while investigating fiery murders

This is the first novel I’ve read by John Dolan, and it gets top marks for setting and character development, while having a sufficiently complicated plot that I didn’t tune out in the middle. (If anything, the solution was perhaps a little less complex than I would have liked.) The expat detective narrator (David Braddock) holed up on Koh Samui has his own skeletons, ghosts and demons that he deals with in unhealthy fashion–alcohol, tobacco and sex–that appeals to a certain cross-section of the reading public. I’m not a Buddhist, so some of the ruminations didn’t strike home, but I still learned a little bit along the way and, should I be reincarnated down the road, at least I’ve got that going for me.

I’m going to grab the second installment and give it a go. There were plenty of loose ends at the conclusion of Everyone Burns, and that sets the scene nicely for the sequel Hungry Ghosts (4-stars).

 

Laundry Man (4-stars) by Jake Needham (2011). Very good, clean fun.

I enjoyed protagonist Jack Shepherd’s first person descriptions of life in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Phuket, all of which were spot on. The author Jake Needham knows international banking well enough to write authoritatively about money laundering. Needham also writes well and the action kept coming. I put the book into the border area of “can’t put it down,” perhaps one step below at “sneak read a few pages in whenever you can” category.

I gave it 4-stars instead of five, however, on two counts. Quibbles include a plot where things (e.g. approaches by strange people) happened to our hero way more often than his actions made them happen. This is partly the result of a central story line where the protagonist finds himself at the center of everyone else’s attention without actually knowing why, but that wasn’t all of it. The ending also was also less believable than I was hoping for. Still well worth reading and I will certainly pick up another Jake Needham novel in the near future.

 

 

The Thirty-Nine Steps (3½-stars) by John Buchan (1915). The grandaddy of the modern thriller is still a page-turner

Aficionados of the modern thriller genre should read this short book in the knowledge that Buchan’s century-old novel provided the next three generations with a template for our own work. Disguises, role playing, man-on-the-run, devious spies . . . yes, you can find these in the Old Testament, too, but not strung together in one story spread over a week or so. Yes, the action is sufficiently far-fetched that it drops out of the “real-life” sub-category, but there’s enough tension that you can see why film makers (including Hitchcock) have lined up to provide their interpretations of the original man-on-the-run tale.

As an added bonus, Kindle owners can buy The Thirty-Nine Steps on Amazon for under two dollars.

 

Crime Fiction

 

 

Angels Flight (5-stars) by Michael Connelly (1999). A cut well above the average police whodunnit.

I’d read The Wrong Side of Goodbye (3-stars), so I knew that Michael Connelly was a skilled storyteller and dialog craftsman. Unlike TWSOG, Angels Flight has enough plot twists to warm the heart of the easily bored and conspiracists among us. Set in post-OJ verdict LA, the backdrop still feels valid today. Harry Bosch is the most realistic policeman in crime fiction today. Highly recommended.

 

 

Buried Prey (3½-stars) by John Sandford (2011). A look through the eyes of Lucas Davenport as he transitions from beat cop to detective.

The novel revolves around the cold case of two murdered little girls, falsely claimed to be solved decades before until their bodies turn up in a demolished home. Lucas Davenport makes for an attractive hero, appealing to male and female readers alike. The flashback sequence was particularly well written and tells the story of how rookie patrolman Davenport fast-tracked his way to detective’s rank. Where the story lagged (and the review dropped a star) was in the time it took to wrap it up once the identity of the bad guy was known. Recommended for hard core Davenport fans, but there are better books in this series.

 

The Night Crew (3-stars) by John Sandford (1997). Off to a strong start, then stumbles near the climax

I liked the book’s premise of an LA-based independent news crew chasing stories around town after sundown, looking to sell film to slower-afoot affiliates plus the occasional elephant. The leader Anna Batory is likable and her crew, particularly Creek, are fleshed out well enough to care about. The mysterious serial killer stalking her ratchets the tension up. I had two beefs. The plot wasn’t strong enough to carry the last third of the book, and the process by which the bad guy is uncovered wasn’t satisfactory, either. A quick, OK read by an author who knows how to write.

 

Military Fiction

 

 

Winter (5-stars) by Len Deighton (1987). A compelling cast in a surreal setting produce a masterpiece.

Despite my high regard for Deighton, I approached Winter with trepidation, enticed by neither the period covered (Germany 1900-1945) nor the substantial length. Strong recommendations from friends, plus curiosity as to how it all tied into Game, Set and Match (my favorite espionage series after le Carré’s Karla trio) led me to take the plunge. The book is a tour de force featuring detailed biographies of over a dozen characters set against the surreal events preceding and during both world wars. Particularly strong are the depictions of the dual protagonists, brothers Peter and Pauli Winter. Winter isn’t an espionage novel per se, just a great book that provides non-essential background on Deighton’s subsequent cold war spy tales. Highly recommended.

 

 

Night Soldiers (5-stars) by Alan Furst (1988). A historical espionage masterpiece

Furst has rabid fans and critical acclaim, but I steered away from Night Soldiers for a couple of years because I wasn’t interested in the history of the Balkans pre-WWII or even the Spanish Civil War after reading the usual novels. This was an error because Furst is a master of characterization and his detailed settings propel multiple plot lines at a good clip. The first quarter of the book flew by, then there was a quiet period (Soviet Union to Spain into France), then from Paris onward the action and tension built. Furst’s a first-rate story teller and I now appreciate why he has such a loyal fan base. Be warned that it’s a long, complex book with plenty of characters to keep track of, but that’s a small price to pay for such a tale.

 

 

Where Eagles Dare (3-stars) by Alistair Maclean (1969). Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood preferred to the printed word

Short formula thriller revisted after reading WED as a teen 40 years ago. Entertaining, but better re-experienced by watching the movie version.

 

Non-Fiction

 

 

SEAL Team Six: Memoirs of an Elite Navy SEAL Sniper (5-Stars) by Howard Wasdin and Stephen Templin (2011). The saga of a tough guy SEAL Team Six operator who survived Mogadishu and managed to build a normal life for himself

The autobiography of a man who started life terrified of his stepfather only to learn as a BUD/S candidate that his acquired mental toughness made him a natural for the SEALs. The story continues with the transition from SEAL Team Two to Team Six and sniper school, and culminates with the story of the SEALs in Mogadishu in the run up to the battle depicted in Black Hawk Down. Wasdin and co-author Templin spend enough time on his upbringing and family to humanize a military professional who otherwise could have come across as a fictional superhero found in an airport thriller. Sniper kills at 800+ yards? Check. Shot three times, but still pouring fire into the enemy? Yep. Offered a job training SEALs in recognition of his excellence? You bet. But what sticks with you is how hard Wasdin fought to become something he’d never been as a Spec Ops careerist: a good father and husband.

 

 

A Man without a Country (5-stars) by Kurt Vonnegut (2005). Beautiful essays from one of America’s great stylists

Anyone who writes or appreciates good writing marvels at Vonnegut’s economy, humor and insight. I’d not read any Vonnegut for thirty years, but saw these essays on sale and found the master hadn’t lost his touch even into his 80s. Short, heartfelt and resonating with humanity. For the boomers among us, four books are worth re-reading: Sirens of Titan, Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions and the antiwar masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five.

 

 

Left of Boom (4-stars) by Douglas Laux (2016). I entitled my review, “A great read for war hounds; a depressing read for people wondering if the war is winnable

A highly readable account from a CIA field operative frustrated by bureaucracy in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Raises still more questions as to the conduct of the war, particularly in respect of selecting, organizing and benefiting from on-the-ground assets.

 

Not-Ready-for-Prime Time

 

 

The Gray Man (24% finished) by Mark Greaney (2009) opens with a bang as a contract sniper operating in western Iraq takes out his target and saves the crew of a downed Chinook at great personal risk

Unfortunately, the rest of the book tracks something akin to Death Race 2000 as the hero Gentry travels across Europe while the best assassins and Spec Ops mercs in the world line up to try to take him down. I guessed the ending, saving a few hours. I’d check it out of the local library and read the first three chapters, and then miss the rest.

 

 

The Sum of all Fears (41% finished) by Tom Clancy (1991).  Jack Ryan and a missing Israel nuke, the Vatican as the guarantor of peace in the Middle East, terrorists and a President having an affair with Ryan’s nemesis

I write long espionage thrillers with complicated plots. I have more fans of Tom Clancy among the Lies readership than perhaps any other author. But Clancy (and his clones) wrote/write these huge books with so much piled-on detail I despair at ever finishing them. With my Kindle overloaded, I eventually wandered off and haven’t been interested enough to pick it up again. (Sorry, Tom, wherever you are: you were super-creative and the father of the techno-thriller, but . . . .)

TV Series to Consider

 

 

On the TV front, the wife and I are series junkies, with Homeland (S7) finished last night. Despite a predictable plot, strong performances by Claire Danes (Carrie) Mandy Patinkin (Saul) and Elizabeth Marvel (HRC, er, President Elizabeth Keane) carry the day.

British crime procedural Line of Duty runs four years and strengthens as it goes along. Recommended for fans of Broadchurch (and blessedly faster-paced, too).

The Man in the High Castle is based on the 1962 Philip K. Dick novel of the same name, so you know it has to be good. It’s historical what-if more than sci-fi, and both seasons are recommended to fans of contrafactual history/WWII.

Ken Burn’s documentary series Vietnam makes compelling watching for me, but the wife can’t stand the graphic violence so I have to watch it at lunchtime (when she’s typically out).

Our next evening viewing priority is the last (S6) season of The Americans. Elizabeth, Page, Henry and Philip comprise everyone’s favorite family of Soviet spies. It will be interesting to see how it all wraps up.