This blog is dedicated to fans of real-life thrillers, a category I made up to signal that the book does not feature a superhuman protagonist, unbelievable action sequences and a linear story line. Amazon doesn’t make this distinction, so I flit between the “conspiracy”, “espionage” and “international mystery and crime” categories when I’m prospecting online. Pickings are slim, and I welcome suggestions from True Lies Nation. For the non-hardcore real-life thriller fans, don’t despair as I’ve included picks in the crime, science fiction, general literature and non-fiction realms, too.

 

Happy book hunting and Gong Xi Fa Cai!

 

Bradley West

Singapore, January 2017

 

Real-Life Thrillers

 

I’ve read three of R. E. McDermott’s novels, Under a Tell-Tale Sky (2015), Push Back (2016) and Deadly Straits (2013). Bob McDermott is a Yank living in Tennessee who spent much of his career either on board ships or building them in Singapore and Shanghai. McDermott’s first series (the “Tom Dugan Trilogy”) has a heavy nautical flavor, and you can tell that the man knows his stuff in debut Deadly Straits. From my review on Goodreads (4-star):

 

Deadly Straits fits my reading tastes to a tee. The hero Tom Dugan isn’t a professional spy, he’s a shipping professional. The action is non-stop and covers a lot of geography. I live in Singapore, and the author got Singapore pretty much right on the nose so I figure he’s just as much on the money when he writes in detail about Sumatra or Panama (among several other places).” See Deadly Straits review on Goodreads by Bradley West for the rest.

 

McDermott then branched out into what he terms science fiction, but I still classify the first two books in his “Disruption Trilogy” as real-life thrillers. Under a Tell-Tale Sky is set in day-after-tomorrow US. From my review on Goodreads (5-star):

 

Under a Tell-Tale Sky is my co-favorite book in the last year or more. McDermott is taking real life thrillers to the next level, and his pacing and characters are sharper than ever. I didn’t find the scenario described—an intense solar flare that zaps most of the world’s electricity generation and transmission infrastructure—far-fetched. So no prospective reader should fear being dropped into a post-plague, Zombies-on-the-loose setting. Instead, we find many ordinary people coping with extraordinary stresses as they fight to survive and reunite with their families. The book runs many threads in parallel and the action is non-stop.” See Under a Tell-Tale Sky Goodreads review by Bradley West for the rest.

Source: Goodreads, Under a Tell-Tale Sky cover

 

The follow-up to UTTS is Push Back (2016) and it’s almost as good (a 4-star rating from me). But you’ll want to read UTTS first as there are substantial spoilers in Push Back. See Push Back Goodreads review by Bradley West for the review. There’s a third book in the works, too, due out later in 2017, Promises to Keep.

 

Laurence O’Bryan, The Istanbul Puzzle (2012) and The Jerusalem Puzzle (2013) are the first two thrillers that feature Oxford University academic Sean Ryan as a modern day sleuth-cum-archaeologist. From my review on Goodreads (4-star):

 

The Istanbul Puzzle is easily a top 20%’er for fans of realistic espionage novels set in exotic locales. I liked TIP much more than the typical thriller for several reasons: (a) the protagonist isn’t a superman in respect of physical traits (and he’s not a professional spy, either); (b) the plot is fast-paced and sufficiently complicated that the reader has to pay attention (which is a proxy for saying you can’t predict the end of the book after the third chapter); (c) there’s heaps of historical research and local (Istanbul) color in the book. See The Istanbul Puzzle Goodreads review by Bradley West for the rest.

 

Joel Canfield’s Dark Sky (2015) is more humorous and irreverent than either McDermott or O’Bryan. Canfield is a little obscene for my tastes (those of you who know me realize that this is quite a statement), but he puts together a good story of a washed-up spy hunting for mysterious killers while simultaneously being pursued. From my review on Goodreads (4-star):

 

Dark Sky has an atypical anti-hero in Max Bowman, believable as an ex-CIA officer with a lot of baggage including an ex-wife, estranged children, a penchant for the bottle and now, a client that may or may not be also trying to thwart his investigation . . . or kill him. Told with an irreverent, fresh and profane voice, Max is a good antidote to much of the formula thriller fiction we see these days. See Dark Sky Goodreads review by Bradley West for the rest.

 

Crime

 

Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye (2016), is a book I finished just last week. This blog entry prompted me to write a short review just now:

 

“I’ve come late in the day to Harry Bosch and Michael Connelly, but I’ll be reading more from each after devouring this parallel-plotted crime novel. I’ve read a lot of thrillers by name-brand authors, and most disappoint because of the formulaic plots and characters. There are only so many ways a cop can catch a criminal (or a criminal can commit a crime), so the difference has to be found in the setting and characters as opposed to plot inventiveness. The two main stories were very good, the characters believable and the pacing brisk. Recommended.”

 

Dennis Lehane, Mystic River (2001) comes with literary laurels, an Academy Award-winning movie adaptation, and over 2600 Goodreads reviews. Yet I just couldn’t get into it as evidenced by the short 3-star review I just penned:

 

“Tremendous character development and setting, and even a well-nuanced plot couldn’t get me to read the novel with anything less than a self-imposed gun barrel to the temple. Just too slow for my liking. I’m glad I read it, but wouldn’t want to read anything similar to it anytime soon.”

 

Science Fiction

 

“Science Fiction” as a genre covers a lot of ground. My Sci-Fi reading started with the early giants (Bradbury, Heinlein, Asimov), segued into Kurt Vonnegut (not really Sci-Fi in the understood sense), and recently ended with a pair of modern giants, Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon) and William Gibson (Neuromancer, the book that described the Internet before there was one, and earns a 6-star rating–if only one existed).

 

Source: Goodreads, Neuromancer cover

 

That’s been about it, but an author’s brain needs more than just thrillers in its diet, so in 2016 I bought Sci-Fi books from three well-regarded authors, and have read two of them (with Stephen King’s The Stand still languishing on the Kindle).

 

Marcus Sakey’s Brilliance (2013, 5-star review yet-to-be-written), features a superstar hero (Nick Cooper) who is a government assassin, mutants (“brilliants”, sort of like SAT-perfect scorers) and an unrealistic plot (hey, it’s science fiction, right?), yet it’s a favorite. The plot is linear—the reader is with the hero every page—and yet Sakey writes well enough that you keep turning the page long after the spouse has turned off the lights and you’re using a miner’s headlamp. This is the essence of a good book: the reader keeps reading through droopy eyelids because he has to know what happens next. This is the first book of the “Brilliance Trilogy,” and you can buy them all for $6 on Kindle (I did): Amazon Kindle Brilliance Trilogy Marcus Sakey.

 

Source: Goodreads, Brilliance cover

Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (2001) is a huge work of fantasy. It’s a well-written mythic ramble that I found just shy of “can’t-put-it-down” quality. I gave it a 4-star rating on Goodreads (but didn’t review it because it’s so sweeping that a proper evaluation was going to take an hour, instead of the ten minutes I usually allocate to a review). Gaiman is a first-rate author and the book is by turns uplifting, confusing, depressing and intriguing. American Gods is now a TV series airing sometime in 2017. Check out the trailer, and if you like it, buy the book. American Gods 2017 IMDB trailer.

 

Source: Goodreads, American Gods cover

General Literature

Kenneth Roberts’ Northwest Passage (1937) was an odd-ball addition to my reading list earlier this month. From my review on Goodreads (5-star):

 

“I’ve always been a nut about American Indians, reading almost everything in libraries from elementary school through high school. Northwest Passage was one of my favorites as a teen, but I hadn’t given it a thought in more than two-score (!) years until a lapsed friend and I reconnected for a New Year’s drink. It turned out he was an Indian aficionado, too, with the French and Indian War (1754-1763) being one of his specialties. I was so stoked after I got home that I bought the book and plunged right back in. I loved the book the second time around, too.

 

The dramatic focus is Major Robert Rogers’ Rangers’ raid on the village of St. Francis along the St. Lawrence River in early October of 1759. The Rangers (precursors to today’s US Army Rangers) endured incredible hardships leading up to the attack, but nothing like the constant terror that accompanied being pursued (and butchered, if caught) by hundreds of French soldiers and Abenaki Indians bent on revenge after they found St. Francis burned, winter food stores destroyed, and most inhabitants killed. While fiction, the account given by our young hero Langdon Towne is rooted in more-or-less accepted historical fact. To borrow a phrase, this part of the book is “a ripping yarn.” The historical Rogers and a handful of companions traveled over 200 miles in sixteen days across unmapped forests with little or no food. Rogers’ will (and perhaps cannibalism) kept the party alive. See Northwest Passage Goodreads review by Bradley West for the rest.

 

Source: Goodreads, Northwest Passage cover

 

David Flynn’s Light of the Lost (2016) is a science-founded adventure novel for 13-15 year olds. It’s a short, lively book that takes the young male-and-female protagonists (and their widowed parents) from the UK to Greenland and then North Africa. Along the way, the reader gets a course in climatology, geography and astronomy. While fiction, Light of the Lost is based on fact and plausible conjecture. I liked it and gave it 4-star Goodreads and Amazon reviews (which I had to take down as Flynn left a review on Sea of Lies, and authors can’t leave other authors reviews under Amazon’s posting rules). Recommended, especially for parents who would like their teens to read more, but don’t have anything suitable.

 

Non-Fiction

Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) is a compilation of articles war correspondent Herr wrote for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War. I’d read it when it came out in the late 1970s, and then re-read it last year. If you have flap blurbs like those below, you don’t need a plug from me to tell you it’s a five-star book:

 

“He seems to have brought to this book the ear of a musician & the eye of a painter…the premier war correspondence of Vietnam.”-Washington Post

 

“The best book I have ever read on men & war in our time.”-John le Carré.

 

Dispatches puts the rest of us in the shade.”-Hunter S. Thompson

 

Real Frogmen Stuff: Submarines & Vietnam (2016) is a chapter out of the true-life story of Facebook friend, email correspondent, and SEAL Team-2 alumnus and author John Carl Roat. Real Frogmen Stuff is free on Amazon Kindle, so you have no excuse not to download it, read it, and leave a review. The book is true life, short, fun and informative.

 

After that, pay a few bucks for either Class 29: The Making of US Navy SEALs (2000) or Roat’s 2016 novel The Terrorist: a SEAL Gone Bad. Class 29 was the first journal of SEAL training as it track’s Roat’s 1962 BUD/S class. Roat suffered alongside my real-life friend Jim Hawes, the alter-ego of Lies trilogy villain Frank Coulter. Roat’s a good story teller and you feel their pain as they “push Virginia away” (via the old fashioned push-up) and nearly die of exposure in a blizzard at the end of training.

 

Not-Ready-for-Prime Time

 

I do most of my reading on a Kindle these days, so it’s easy to find how far I got into a book before abandoning it. There are three 2016 books I read at least a quarter of before throwing in the towel:

 

Andrew Warren’s Devil’s Due, 2016, (76% completed) is set in Thailand and involves a burned-out spy Thomas Caine hoping to rescue a beautiful woman from drug traffickers and slavers. It’s a free Kindle download and only a novella (134 pp), but I found it hackneyed and never finished it. Would be OK for the beach with a hangover.

 

William G. Davis’s The Shooting, 2015, (28% completed) features Mike Gage as an ex-homicide cop teamed up with an outcast FBI agent to investigate a Columbine-like shooting at a Florida high school dance. The book earned good reviews and is well-written. Anyone with kids should be interested enough to read about a fictional account of something that’s happened far too frequently in the recent past. Everything in the book was good, but never gripping. . . at least at the beginning.

 

Andrew Peterson’s First to Kill, 2012 (26% completed) features Nathan McBride (in the first of a six-book series) as an ex-CIA officer. McBride works as a private investigator until the head of the FBI calls in a favor. McBride and his sidekick are soon staking out a survivalists compound in the California wilds looking for a stolen thousand pounds of Semtex. Did I mention that McBride doesn’t speak with his estranged US Senator father? Oh, you’ve seen this one before . . . me, too.

 

*  *  *  *  *

 

So what are you reading these days? I finished Brilliance last night and will give ex-CIA officer Joe Goldberg’s Secret Wars a go despite uneven reviews. I’m also working through Gold Warriors by Sterling and Peggy Seagrave. Gold Warriors tells the story of Japan’s looting of Asia pre-and-during WWII, and what happened to the gold, art and priceless collectibles after the war. I’m not certain if it’s an exposé that should have received more press, or wild speculation.

 

On the TV front, the wife and I are finishing season four of The Americans, while also jumping between season two of Narcos and Broadchurch. I know, I know: quite a mixed bag with my series preferences in the order listed.