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It’s summer reading season and I’ve loaded the Kindle for the next six weeks in Singapore before packing my flannel shirts for northern British Columbia and the annual fishing pilgrimage. Below I recommend a dozen books, suggest three to avoid, and conclude with a quartet of TV series worth seeing. The two best-value books are actually free, Squall (Sean Costello) and Whiskey Sour (J. A. Konrath).


As always, I’m on the lookout for a good thriller, so don’t be shy about sharing your favorites, too.


Bradley West, Singapore, July 2019


Real-Life Thrillers


The Power of the Dog trilogy (5-, 5- and 3½ -stars) by Don Winslow (2005, 2015, 2019). Sweeping saga of the rise of the Sinaloa Cartel and government complicity and corruption in both the US and Mexico.


In 2005 when Winslow published The Power of the Dog, he unwittingly launched new cottage industries in television (Narcos: Mexico), journalism (Sean Penn’s infamous Rolling Stone article) and movies (Sicario I, II). The DEA’s Art Keller is a composite character whose illegal wiretap of a kingpin’s mistress leads to the kidnapping, torture and death of his junior colleague (a fictional Kiki Camarena) in 1985 Guadalajara. More generally, the book traces the ascendance of the Sinaloa Cartel over thirty years, and the unsavory roles played by Mexico’s and the United States’ officialdom. The Power of the Dog runs six-hundred-pages and is jammed full of interesting characters and plotlines that compelled me to research the real-life parallels. A big book by any yardstick: a solid 5-stars.


Source: Amazon

Follow-up The Cartel covers 2004-2015 and is as intricate and captivating as its predecessor. Keller once again squares off against drug lord Adán Barrera (a composite of three traffickers including El Chapo), and again the violence, government duplicity and double-crosses flow: another 5-star effort. The final installment, The Border, ran out of gas and is best left to hard core Winslow fans . I rate it only 3½ stars.

Squall (4-stars) by Sean Costello (2015). Elmore Leonard in Canada’s winter wilderness

Source: Kobo

Squall starts out at a breathless pace, with dialog driving the action and colorful characters painted with words Elmore Leonard fans will recognize. The middle of the book sees the action level off and then build to a crescendo over the last pages with the hero’s wife going into labor. The arch villain faces a choice: help deliver the baby of someone he’s going to kill, or watch mother and newborn perish during childbirth? This was my first exposure to Mr. Costello’s writing, and I’ve already picked up two more of his novels.


Passenger 19 (4-stars) by Ward Larsen (2016). Solid entertainment as Taken meets Jack Reacher.


Ward Larsen’s hard man Jammer Davis is a former fighter pilot who is now a civilian air crash investigator. When the plane carrying his only child, a college-aged daughter, disappears in Colombia, Jammer is on the case. Passenger 19 stretches my definition of a “real-life thriller” as Jammer’s more of mythic character than an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances. I did, however, appreciate the author’s characters and setting, and the action sequences aren’t too over-the-top. More of a beach read . . . or one for the plane.


Classic Espionage Novels

A Legacy of Spies (5-stars) by John le Carré (2017). Imperfect narration of a perfectly crafted story 

Source: Amazon


I bought A Legacy of Spies when it came out two years ago, but like an old girlfriend’s phone number I was reluctant to re-engage for fear of disappointment. The mixed online reviews reinforced my unease, but a dearth of decent espionage novels on the Kindle led me to start reading. Fans of the Karla trilogy and precursors rejoice: Le Carré retains his touch. True, there’s not nearly enough Smiley in the flesh. But after Alec Guinness and the 1970s thrillers, the myth supersedes anything new an author could write. (What would you write if give an assignment to feature George Smiley in a short story, much less a novel?) It was a clever approach to use Peter Guillam’s voice to tell tales of Smiley, Control, Alec Lemas and many others. The old master certainly knows how to deal out the intrigue, too.

On literary merit, A Legacy of Spies warrants perhaps a 4.5-star rating with slight marks lost for laborious exposition, a mixture of Guillam’s internal musings, historical documents and snippets of current actions and dialogue. But when it’s all said and done, who today writes in le Carré’s league? Quite right: 5-stars.


Spy Story (5-star) by Len Deighton (1974). An elegant espionage yarn with a bite in the tail.


I read Spy Story after An Expensive Place to Die and much prefer this effort. Spy Story offers labyrinthine intrigue with a typical jaded Harry Palmer proving he’s smarter than the average retired intel officer . . . until he’s unretired and needs to display martial prowess, wargaming expertise, trans-Atlantic diplomatic skills and figure out what in the hell is going on in this le Carré-like thriller. I thought I had it all worked out until the last pages. It’s such a good story told at a slow pace to match the torpor of the protagonist, but there’s plenty to keep you mentally engaged. (I also suspect there’s a kernel of truth to it.)

Crime Fiction

Whiskey Sour (5-star) by J. A. Konrath (2004). A near perfect cop-and-stalker-serial killer story.


Source: Amazon


Whiskey Sour was the first Konrath book I’ve read and I was impressed. The book is an almost blemish free commercial thriller: a sympathetic female protagonist, well-defined and someone female readers can identify with; a diabolical serial killer who turns his attentions the police detective on his trail; and a brisk pace, modest length and satisfying end. These books are harder to write than they are to read. A tip of the cap to Mr. Konrath.


Two Kinds of Truth (4-star) by Michael Connelly (2017). Strong research combined with adroit storytelling.


I’ve yet to read a bad Harry Bosch police procedural and Two Kinds of Truth exceeds the high standards of its predecessors. Connelly’s research of the pill mill industry comes through in his depiction of everything from dishonest doctors writing massive numbers of prescriptions for oxy while homeless addicts are herded like sheep from quack pharmacy to pharmacy, turning their pills over at the end of the day in return for a couple tabs to keep their buzzes going.


The second plot thread is more conventional, that being an attempt by someone to frame Bosch for evidence tampering and perjury. Not only is his reputation at stake, but also a loss on this case could lead to the unjustified release of the many felons justifiably imprisoned on the basis of Bosch’s testimony. Combine these stories and throw in a loving father-loving daughter thread, and you have another best seller.


Science Fiction


Freedom’s Fire (4-star) Bobby Adair (2017). A super fast sci-fi shoot’em up lessened by a cliffhanger ending.

Source: Amazon


I’m not a sci-fi reader normally—certainly non the “bug hunt” genre—but Freedom’s Fire was the first book (thanks to the author’s surname) in the table of contents of a disaster relief fundraising Kindle compilation I purchased called “25-for-1”. I love non-stop action and this story grabbed me from the start. An ordinary Colorado factory worker (OK, he has an alien implant at the top of his spinal column) turns into a leader of the resistance once he reaches space. Adair does a nice job (to this non-sci-fi reader) explaining how beyond-light speed travel is plausible, and spends adequate time talking about the various technologies deployed. Basically, this is a Space Western with a few Good Guys blasting the Outlaws.


I was, however, disappointed to be left hanging on an asteroid near-ish to Jupiter, and that cost the book a star as I don’t think readers should be coerced into buying the next book in a series.


The Forge of God (4-star) by Greg Bear (1987). A bleak, thought-provoking end-of-the-world epic.


A friend recommended TFOG because it was a groundbreaker when it came out, and he reckoned it was still worth a look three decades later. I enjoyed the plot, found the science semi-plausible, thought there were too many characters and felt the book could have lost 20% of its words without sacrificing much. I guess on merit it’s a 3-star, but the imagination and bold plotting more than merit another star. Certainly not a book to read if you are feeling down or wondering what the future holds for mankind.

Not-Ready-for-Prime Time


The Killer Collective (69%) by Barry Eisler (2019). Like an Avengers movie, but with all the action heroes’ feet stuck in glue.


Barry Eisler write’s exceptionally well, and the John Rain series elevated him to the top echelon of contemporary thriller authors. The Killer Collective departs from the lone, quiet assassin in a just cause John Rain novels and instead ropes in former co-stars (many of them inimical to one another), plus new series heroine Livia Lone. Unlike the Marvel Comics movies, the book bogs down in sharing back stories (justifying to the hard core Eisler fans how Mr. X could now be teamed up with adversary Mr. Y), giving each of the stars a turn in the spotlight, and, oh yeah, hunting down the bad guys. I tried hard, but just couldn’t get to the finish line.


One Rough Man (60%) by Brad Taylor (2011). Soul-wrenching guilt, ancient Maya pathogens, a devious political master and Arab Terrorists makes for too funky a mix.


This was my first (and, I suspect, last) encounter with Brad Taylor and super warrior Pike Logan. I thought the book would be better as it’s the gateway into the highly successful thriller series, plus Taylor is a former lieutenant colonel in Delta Force, so he knows his craft. The problem isn’t in the military authenticity, it’s in the plot and the characters.


One Rough Man begins with the tired trope of tension-at-home/one-last-mission-before-the-new-leaf. It goes badly wrong and a bereaved Pike Logan is a shell of his old self. Arab terrorists in Central America, a Scarface-like drug trafficker, a nutty archeologist and his young, innocent niece and an unqualified former boss in the capital all add up to a grand case of “We’ve seen this all before—just not crushed together in one lump of a book.”


The Afghan (44%) by Frederick Forsyth (2006). Just too slow in developing to keep me reading.


Frederick Forsyth has written a handful of the very best thrillers of my lifetime, Day of the Jackal foremost among them. He’s also written fun-to-read boys’-own stories such as The Dogs of War and The Fist of God. The Afghan is neither, and despite the still-topical theme of an al Qaeda plot and the need for a deep penetration agent to uncover it, couldn’t induce me to keep turning the pages even to the halfway point.


TV Series for Conspiracists


Source: Amazon


Narcos: Mexico, S1, 10 episodes (Netflix, 2018) is a standalone series done in the same style (“historical faction”) as the previous three seasons of Narcos set in Colombia. Season 1 covers the 1980s and the origins of the Sinaloa Cartel as a technological innovator (first agribusiness to grow sinsemilla) and then later as the distributor of Colombian cocaine into the US. The protagonist is Kiki Camarena, the DEA agent based in Guadalajara who in 1985 pieced together what the Cartel and the Mexico government and lawmen had been hiding: a gigantic criminal enterprise. Felix Gallardo (precursor to El Chapo Guzman) leads a cast of a half-dozen high profile narcos. Compelling viewing.


The Looming Tower, S1, 10 episodes (Hulu, 2018) presents a dramatization of the political infighting between the FBI and the CIA in the lead-up to 9/11. The story centers around the FBI’s only Arabic speaker, a passionate, patriotic Lebanese-born naturalized American. Jeff Daniels plays John O’Neill, the head of the FBI’s New York counterterrorism center. Peter Sarsgaard is Daniel’s nemesis Martin Schmidt, the head of the CIA’s D.C.-based counterterrorism division, “Alec Station.” The series intersperses the terrorist attacks—the bombing of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the holing of the USS Cole—leading up to the hijacked planes plowing into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Adding insult to injury, actual 9/11 commission footage airs at the very end of the series to demonstrate that much of what was on film wasn’t made up: it was actors impersonating CIA Director George Tenet and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice uttering their mealy-mouthed words. The Looming Tower is solid entertainment, but packs a sting, too.


Counterpart S1, 10 episodes (Starz, 2017) is a peculiar blend of sci-fi and intrigue as it’s an espionage story played out in parallel universes. Sometime in the mid-1980s, our existing reality cloned itself. The two worlds meet in Berlin (accessed through a sort of top secret Checkpoint Charlie), and there’s an uneasy peace in place though both sides spy on one another in a rekindled Cold War. A deadpan J. K. Simmons plays Howard Silk, a low-level bureaucrat in one spy agency and a ruthless counter-intel chief in the other reality. A sexy female assassin stalks Silk’s wife (played by Olivia Williams) in both universes. Counterpart sounds preposterous, but at least season one has captured the wife’s and my full attention while aficionados await the ultimate season of The Man in the High Castle.


* * * * *


Lai Fan and I also enjoyed Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan (Amazon Prime, 2018, 8 episodes), but it’s escapist entertainment as opposed to Narcos: Mexico and The Looming Tower, and not as imaginative as Counterpart. Certainly worth a look, especially on a plane or in an otherwise captive environment. Fans of Bunk from The Wire will particularly appreciate Wendell Pierce as the boss of our hero, John Krasinski in the role of young Jack Ryan, CIA eye candy desk man.


Source: Amazon