Book Review: Star of the North by D.B. John

Star of the North
D.B. John
Crown Publishing, May 2018
ISBN 978-0-525-57329-6
Hardcover

Three plot lines run through this contemporary thriller, sometimes in parallel and sometimes converging. The overarching framework of the story is Jenna’s search for her Korean American twin sister, kidnapped from the Korean peninsula. Her sister was believed dead for a long time until Jenna receives evidence that she is alive in North Korea. She manages to join the CIA, the only mechanism she knows of that will allow her to execute her plan to rescue her sister and exact revenge. The tangled path to her sister ends in her dining alone with Kim Jong Il.

Accompanying subplots involve Mrs. Moon, an enterprising peasant who begins a profitable black market business with contraband, and Colonel Cho Sang-ho, a highly regarded North Korean official who learns he is descended from traitors to the regime. Their subsequent captures, arrests, and brutal imprisonment in the coal mines of North Hamgyong Province make for painful reading.

This chilling and timely novel about North Korea has received accolades from every major reviewing outlet, including starred reviews from Booklist, Publishers’ Weekly, and Library Journal.

D.B. John was born in Wales and now lives in London. He has lived in South Korea and Berlin and is one of the few Westerners to have visited North Korea. He co-authored The Girl With Seven Names, Hyeonseo Lee’s New York Times bestselling 2015 memoir about her escape from North Korea. His first thriller was Flight from Berlin (2012).

Reviewed by Aubrey Hamilton, September 2018.

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Book Review: Freedom’s Child by Jax Miller And Manitou Canyon by William Kent Krueger

freedoms-childFreedom’s Child
Jax Miller
Crown, July 2015
ISBN: 978-0-8041-8680-3
Hardcover

Foul-mouthed Freedom Oliver is a bartender in Oregon, shielded by Witness Protection.  The reason is that 20 years before she was arrested for murdering her husband and held for two years, before the evidence she planted resulted in the arrest and conviction of her brother-in-law.  But upon her arrest she gave up her two children for adoption, fearing life imprisonment.  Incidentally neither she nor he had actually fired the gun.

The children were placed in the home of a religious zealot in Kentucky, the head of a cult.  Now, 20 years later, the brother-in-law is freed and is seeking revenge.  Meanwhile, her daughter goes missing and Freedom leaves to find the child, who may have been kidnapped.  Along the way she meets her son, now a successful attorney.

This is a debut novel, and for all its interesting plot, it also suffers from superfluous and foul language and other excessive attributes of an unpolished author, especially the novel’s conclusion, which can only be described as a neophyte’s bright idea.  Nevertheless, despite all of that, the time it took to read the story was worthwhile because it is more than interesting.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2016.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

manitou-canyonManitou Canyon
A Cork O’Connor Mystery #15
William Kent Krueger
Atria Books, September 2016
ISBN: 978-1-476-74928-0
Hardcover

Of the fifteen volumes in the excellent Cork O’Connor series, this latest is one of the best.  It finds Cork in the midst of at least two conspiracies during which he probably learns more about himself than he has in a long time.  It is November, a month in which he has undergone several tragedies, including the death of his wife.  In a depressed mood, his daughter’s wedding looms in a couple of weeks.

The Cork is approached by the grandchildren of a boyhood friend he has not seen in decades, who has gone missing in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, to try to find the man despite a two-week search-and-rescue operation having failed and efforts called off.  Instead of the couple of days by which Cork promised his daughter to return, he and the accompanying granddaughter go missing as well.  And this leads to some of the best writing and descriptions in a series that abounds in such efforts as Cork and the woman are captured and with their captors trudge and canoe northward to Canada.

Meanwhile back home Cork’s family and friends realize something has gone wrong and they fly to Raspberry Lake looking for him. With winter setting in, it becomes a race not only for survival for the group that captured Cork, but also for his rescuers.  As is usual, the author gives the reader deep insight not only into Ojibwe culture but the Northwoods environment in which the story takes place.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, August 2016.

Book Review: June by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore—and a Giveaway!

JuneJune
Miranda Beverly-Whittemore
Crown, May 2016
ISBN 978-0-553-44768-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

Twenty-five-year-old Cassie Danvers is holed up in her family’s crumbling mansion in rural St. Jude, Ohio, mourning the loss of the woman who raised her—her grandmother, June. But a knock on the door forces her out of isolation. Cassie has been named the sole heir to legendary matinee idol Jack Montgomery’s vast fortune. How did Jack Montgomery know her name? Could he have crossed paths with her grandmother all those years ago? What other shocking secrets could June’s once-stately mansion hold?

Soon Jack’s famous daughters come knocking, determined to wrestle Cassie away from the inheritance they feel is their due. Together, they all come to discover the true reasons for June’s silence about that long-ago summer, when Hollywood came to town, and June and Jack’s lives were forever altered by murder, blackmail, and betrayal. As this page-turner shifts deftly between the past and present, Cassie and her guests will be forced to reexamine their legacies, their definition of family, and what it truly means to love someone, steadfastly, across the ages.

When I first started reading June, I have to admit I was thinking I might be sorry because the opening pages smack of magical realism and I REALLY don’t like that. Happily, though, I pushed on and the story soon became a pretty straightforward tale, albeit set in two time periods 60 years apart. The POV in 1955 is from a girl named Lindie whose best friend, and object of her affection, is June. In present day, the focus is on June’s grandaughter, Cassie. It’s during Lindie’s and June’s time that we get the first hint of the dark things that happened back then.

These three young women are each very interesting in different ways. June appears to be the proper daughter raised in gentility who never breaks the rules and always does what’s expected of her. Lindie is the girl exploring her lesbianism and she goes overboard in trying to make herself unattractive, perhaps an effort to play down her girlness. And then there’s Cassie who initially seems to be in the grip of a deep depression, unable to cope with the necessities of everyday life, but she’s soon rocked out of her somber, uncaring mood by the news that she has inherited a huge fortune from a man who claimed he was her grandfather.

The coming battle between Cassie and Jack Montgomery’s acknowledged family is just what you might expect but her search for the facts leads to answers she certainly never anticipated and it’s June’s and Lindie’s stories that are really compelling.

Beautifully written prose and easy transitions from one time period to the other and back add to characters who are as appealing as any reader could want. Author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore, unknown to me before now, already has a reputation as a fine writer and June should be seen as another feather in her cap.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2016.

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About the Author

Miranda Beverly-WhittemoreMiranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of three other novels: New York Times bestseller Bittersweet; Set Me Free, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize, given annually for the best book of fiction by an American woman; and The Effects of Light. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Prize in Fiction, she lives and writes in Brooklyn.

Connect with Miranda Beverly-Whittemore

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Book Reviews: Blessed Are the Dead by Malla Nunn, Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon, All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley, and Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

Blessed Are the DeadBlessed Are the Dead
Malla Nunn
Emily Bestler Books/Washington Square Press, June 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-1692-7
Trade Paperback

The iconoclastic South African detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper returns in this excellent third installment in the series, replete with poignant observations on the effects of the rigid apartheid system in the country in 1953.  Cooper, who remains in the dog house for past transgressions, is plucked by his superior to solve a murder in an attempt to resurrect his status.

Accompanied by black Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala, he finds the body of a 17-year-old Zulu girl, daughter of a chief.  There are no clues at the scene, and the two have to scrounge for leads and face obstacles from the natives and landowners, each with their own agenda. The victim herself was involved in both the white and native African worlds, so that the detectives have to cope with the guarded secrets of both communities.

The characters drawn with deep accuracy to depict the characteristics of the South African society at the time are real and flawed.  The novel brings the reader into the corrupt atmosphere of the country with careful descriptions and sharp prose.  Another welcome addition to the adventures of a colorful detective, and it is most highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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Let the Devil SleepLet the Devil Sleep
John Verdon
Crown, July 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-71792-4
Hardcover

In his third appearance, retired NYPD detective David Gurney probably wishes he never answered the telephone.  By doing so, he ends up in a most precarious situation when a journalist who had written a laudatory profile of him when he was a top homicide detective asks him to look over her daughter’s shoulder.  The daughter has a chance to have her thesis idea converted into a TV series: “Orphans of the Murder,” a series of interviews with the families of the victims of a killer known as The Good Shepherd.  The homicides had taken place a decade earlier.

Gurney reluctantly agrees, but then becomes more and more involved in the case, which he believes was mishandled in the original investigation.  Of course, as he continues to look into it and raise questions, he makes no friends in the establishment, especially the FBI which had assumed control of the case.  And complicating his efforts is the Good Shepherd’s attempts to forestall and kill the TV series.

The novel begins as Gurney is slowly recovering from three gunshot wounds, one to his head, as a result of his last exploit.  And, of course, no Gurney story would leave him uninjured as a result of his determination to solve a case.  While the plot is logical and straightforward, a lot of the writing is repetitive, especially Gurney’s relations with his second wife, Madeleine, and his son, Kyle. That said, the story moves forward at a swift pace and has an unforeseen conclusion, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

All I Did Was Shoot My ManAll I Did Was Shoot My Man
Walter Mosley
NAL, February 2013
ISBN: 978-0-4512-3916-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter (“LT”) McGill is a 55-year-old African-American man, a former boxer, con man, fixer and over-all reprobate turned [relatively honest] PI is one of the more unusual characters in mystery fiction. Married, he has little if anything to do with his wife.  As far as his three children are concerned, he acknowledges that two are not his, but he loves and nurtures all.  His collection of friends and associates are as unconventional as he is.  And so are the books in the series, all somewhat bizarre but very enjoyable.

The plots of the series books, while intricate and complicated, tend to be odd.  And the present installment is no different.  In the past, LT framed a young woman who shot her boyfriend three times, when she came home to find him in bed with her best friend.  Since she was destined to go to jail anyway, he planted evidence in her locker of complicity in a $548 million heist from an insurance company.  Some years later, LT finds the “false” information that led to her conviction following which his lawyer gets her released from prison. As a result, a number of events take place, including an attempt on LT’s life, along with the murders of several others.  Of course, it’s up to him to solve the case.

Written in a style that sometimes defies belief, the complexity and insight of the novel and, especially, the LT character, are overwhelming.  With each book, development of LT as a person deepens, and the reader gains substantial knowledge of the man.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

GuiltGuilt
Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine, February 2013
ISBN: 978-0-345-50573-6
Hardcover

The team of psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD homicide detective Lt. Milo Sturgis has been solving cases for a long time.  But not like the crimes described in this latest installment.  It starts out with the discovery of a child’s bones, which appear to be old, perhaps dating to the 1950’s.  Soon, however, a fresh set of bones is found in a nearby park.  And on the other side of the park, a murdered young woman.  Are all these connected?

Following the familiar plot line, the detective follows procedure, and the psychologist thinks off the wall.  And together they find the path to solving the mysteries, a tough road.  Looking into the history of ownership of the first site provides little guidance.  And there isn’t much more to go on in the case of the new set of bones or of the murder victim.

The hallmark of the series is the interchange and quips between Alex and Milo, and Guilt is no exception.  The author has perfected the novels, plotting and characters to such a high degree as to make each new entry a joy to read.  And the newest book conforms to that ideal, and certainly is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2013.

Book Reviews: House Divided by Mike Lawson, The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler, Shut Your Eyes Tight by John Verdon, Dreams of the Dead by Perri O’Shaughnessy, and Thick as Thieves by Peter Spiegelman

House Divided
Mike Lawson
Atlantic Monthly Press, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1978-0
Hardcover

The reader is asked to suspend disbelief and just sit down and read this sixth Joe DeMarco thriller.  The plot involves a clandestine operation conducted by the President’s Chief of Staff, totally illegally and possibly even irrationally.  Pitted against him is an equally covert National Security Agency operation whose activities and personnel somehow defy belief.

Caught in the middle is poor Joe DeMarco, also an underground tool of the Speaker of the House, who for purposes of this novel, at least, is in a coma at Walter Reed Army Hospital, giving his sometime employee hopes for spending a week or so playing golf.  No such luck.  Joe is sucked into the byplay when his cousin is apparently murdered early in the A.M. one day.  As a result, Joe has to settle his affairs, and along the way learns too much, sucking him into the internecine warfare between two powerful forces.

Once disbelief is suspended, this becomes an enjoyable read.  It is well written, and the plot is tight.  It moves forward at a fast pace, and even the somewhat mechanical conclusion satisfied this reader, and so it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Hypnotist
Lars Kepler
Translated by Ann Long
Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-17395-1
Hardcover

This Scandinavian mystery/thriller shows a glimmer of what readers have come to expect from the masters of the genre, but falls short. It is overly long, and in dire need of editing.  But it does introduce an interesting protagonist in Inspector Detective Joona Linna, apparently a relentless investigator who doesn’t rest until he solves a case, always arguing he is right even when others, especially his superiors, do not think so.  And when he proves them wrong, always asks, “Was I right,” insisting on an answer in the affirmative.

This is a complicated story in which a couple of subplots recount the results of an experimental program conducted by a doctor, Erik Maria Bark, who specializes in group therapy using hypnotism.  When, ten years earlier, one of his patients accused him of an impropriety, he was suspended. He questions the results of his efforts and swears never to hypnotize a patient again, but is persuaded by the detective to try his talents on a young boy, now hospitalized and in a coma, who apparently murdered everyone in his family but his sister, who was not present at the scene. She cannot be found, and Bark must try to discover her whereabouts.  The doctor relents, but the ramifications give way to the rest of the novel’s twists and turns when the boy manages to leave the hospital after awakening from the coma, and is soon suspected of kidnapping Bark’s 14-year-old son.

Inspector Linna insists on leading the case to find the boy before he is able to kill his sister or, he suspects, harm Bark’s son, as he also assumes the lead in the kidnapping case.  And the chase is on, with Bark, his wife and his father-in-law, a retired detective, playing important roles.  I wish some greater effort had been made to streamline the book.  Then it would have received a higher rating from this reviewer and been unreservedly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shut Your Eyes Tight
John Verdon
Crown, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-71789-4
Hardcover

In his second appearance, retired NYPD detective David Gurney faces an ever-shifting set of “facts” in his effort to solve a bizarre murder case.  A bride is found decapitated within moments of her marriage ceremony, and there is absolutely no forensic evidence available.  As only a “consultant,” retained by the mother of the bride to find the murderer, Gurney not only faces the challenge of an ingenious adversary, but also the official police investigators who have failed in four months to make any progress in solving the crime.

The novel is not so much as a murder mystery than a “thriller,” suffused with a series of logical and sometimes illogical assumptions that do little to move the story forward as much as to just muddy the investigation.  The juxtaposition of Gurney’s obsession with his craft and his wife’s deep desire to just enjoy their retirement does little to add to the forward movement of the book, except to contribute to its length, which could have been shortened to good effect by some judicious editing.  On the whole, however, it is a good story, enlivened by some clever twists, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dreams of the Dead
Perri O’Shaughnessy
Gallery Books, July 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4973-4
Hardcover

This is a long-running series featuring Nina Reilly, a South Lake Tahoe, California attorney with a penchant for getting into all kinds of trouble. This novel actually arises from some of Nina’s past experiences, including the death of her husband in a snow avalanche caused by Jim Strong, son of Phillip, owner of a resort facility headed for bankruptcy.

As a result of Phillip’s need for cash to pay off creditors, he has agreed to sell his property, but the sale is complicated by the fact that a local attorney has intervened, presenting “affidavits” from Jim, who disappeared two years before, demanding that his share of the money be sent to him in Brazil where he is supposedly hiding.  The attorney representing Phillip asks Nina to join her in representing Phillip in the court proceedings, which draws her into a complicated conspiracy compounded by a couple of murders.

The novel is hampered by various extraneous side issues, especially an abundance of fashion descriptions and undue attention to Nina’s footwear.  Also, for some reason the authors, two sisters, insert portions of a not-so-good “novel” being written by Nina’s secretary, Sandy.  The basic mystery is interesting and well-drawn, but the distractions hindered this reader.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thick as Thieves
Peter Spiegelman
Alfred A. Knopf, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26317-9
Hardcover

As standalone novels recounting tales of thefts go, this story of a gang that shows little trust in each other, despite huge paydays, is so riveting and well-written that it deserves a sequel.  It tells the story of Carr, drummed out of the CIA for a temperament not deemed suitable for supervising agents or informers, but has a talent for planning and watching the slightest details during an operation, is recruited to join a band of thieves who undertake grand monetary thefts.

The bulk of the novel centers on a plan to steal $100 million from a money laundering operation running several Florida banks headquartered on a Caribbean island and headed by a man named Prager. It is meticulously planned, but when it appears that prior intelligence is faulty, Carr has to improvise.  And complications also include mistrust of his co-workers, who show no hesitation at double-crossing or stealing from him and the sponsor who fronts costs.  At the same time, Carr has to solve his own emotions about his father and his care as he is slowly dying.

The novel is so well-written and plotted, with a conclusion so unexpected, that this reader wished it would continue.  Needless to say, there isn’t much more one could add to encourage another reader to pick it up.  So giving it a strong recommendation is an easy decision.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

Book Reviews: House Divided by Mike Lawson, The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler, Shut Your Eyes Tight by John Verdon, Dreams of the Dead by Perri O'Shaughnessy, and Thick as Thieves by Peter Spiegelman

House Divided
Mike Lawson
Atlantic Monthly Press, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-8021-1978-0
Hardcover

The reader is asked to suspend disbelief and just sit down and read this sixth Joe DeMarco thriller.  The plot involves a clandestine operation conducted by the President’s Chief of Staff, totally illegally and possibly even irrationally.  Pitted against him is an equally covert National Security Agency operation whose activities and personnel somehow defy belief.

Caught in the middle is poor Joe DeMarco, also an underground tool of the Speaker of the House, who for purposes of this novel, at least, is in a coma at Walter Reed Army Hospital, giving his sometime employee hopes for spending a week or so playing golf.  No such luck.  Joe is sucked into the byplay when his cousin is apparently murdered early in the A.M. one day.  As a result, Joe has to settle his affairs, and along the way learns too much, sucking him into the internecine warfare between two powerful forces.

Once disbelief is suspended, this becomes an enjoyable read.  It is well written, and the plot is tight.  It moves forward at a fast pace, and even the somewhat mechanical conclusion satisfied this reader, and so it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Hypnotist
Lars Kepler
Translated by Ann Long
Sarah Crichton Books / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-374-17395-1
Hardcover

This Scandinavian mystery/thriller shows a glimmer of what readers have come to expect from the masters of the genre, but falls short. It is overly long, and in dire need of editing.  But it does introduce an interesting protagonist in Inspector Detective Joona Linna, apparently a relentless investigator who doesn’t rest until he solves a case, always arguing he is right even when others, especially his superiors, do not think so.  And when he proves them wrong, always asks, “Was I right,” insisting on an answer in the affirmative.

This is a complicated story in which a couple of subplots recount the results of an experimental program conducted by a doctor, Erik Maria Bark, who specializes in group therapy using hypnotism.  When, ten years earlier, one of his patients accused him of an impropriety, he was suspended. He questions the results of his efforts and swears never to hypnotize a patient again, but is persuaded by the detective to try his talents on a young boy, now hospitalized and in a coma, who apparently murdered everyone in his family but his sister, who was not present at the scene. She cannot be found, and Bark must try to discover her whereabouts.  The doctor relents, but the ramifications give way to the rest of the novel’s twists and turns when the boy manages to leave the hospital after awakening from the coma, and is soon suspected of kidnapping Bark’s 14-year-old son.

Inspector Linna insists on leading the case to find the boy before he is able to kill his sister or, he suspects, harm Bark’s son, as he also assumes the lead in the kidnapping case.  And the chase is on, with Bark, his wife and his father-in-law, a retired detective, playing important roles.  I wish some greater effort had been made to streamline the book.  Then it would have received a higher rating from this reviewer and been unreservedly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Shut Your Eyes Tight
John Verdon
Crown, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-71789-4
Hardcover

In his second appearance, retired NYPD detective David Gurney faces an ever-shifting set of “facts” in his effort to solve a bizarre murder case.  A bride is found decapitated within moments of her marriage ceremony, and there is absolutely no forensic evidence available.  As only a “consultant,” retained by the mother of the bride to find the murderer, Gurney not only faces the challenge of an ingenious adversary, but also the official police investigators who have failed in four months to make any progress in solving the crime.

The novel is not so much as a murder mystery than a “thriller,” suffused with a series of logical and sometimes illogical assumptions that do little to move the story forward as much as to just muddy the investigation.  The juxtaposition of Gurney’s obsession with his craft and his wife’s deep desire to just enjoy their retirement does little to add to the forward movement of the book, except to contribute to its length, which could have been shortened to good effect by some judicious editing.  On the whole, however, it is a good story, enlivened by some clever twists, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Dreams of the Dead
Perri O’Shaughnessy
Gallery Books, July 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4165-4973-4
Hardcover

This is a long-running series featuring Nina Reilly, a South Lake Tahoe, California attorney with a penchant for getting into all kinds of trouble. This novel actually arises from some of Nina’s past experiences, including the death of her husband in a snow avalanche caused by Jim Strong, son of Phillip, owner of a resort facility headed for bankruptcy.

As a result of Phillip’s need for cash to pay off creditors, he has agreed to sell his property, but the sale is complicated by the fact that a local attorney has intervened, presenting “affidavits” from Jim, who disappeared two years before, demanding that his share of the money be sent to him in Brazil where he is supposedly hiding.  The attorney representing Phillip asks Nina to join her in representing Phillip in the court proceedings, which draws her into a complicated conspiracy compounded by a couple of murders.

The novel is hampered by various extraneous side issues, especially an abundance of fashion descriptions and undue attention to Nina’s footwear.  Also, for some reason the authors, two sisters, insert portions of a not-so-good “novel” being written by Nina’s secretary, Sandy.  The basic mystery is interesting and well-drawn, but the distractions hindered this reader.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Thick as Thieves
Peter Spiegelman
Alfred A. Knopf, July 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-26317-9
Hardcover

As standalone novels recounting tales of thefts go, this story of a gang that shows little trust in each other, despite huge paydays, is so riveting and well-written that it deserves a sequel.  It tells the story of Carr, drummed out of the CIA for a temperament not deemed suitable for supervising agents or informers, but has a talent for planning and watching the slightest details during an operation, is recruited to join a band of thieves who undertake grand monetary thefts.

The bulk of the novel centers on a plan to steal $100 million from a money laundering operation running several Florida banks headquartered on a Caribbean island and headed by a man named Prager. It is meticulously planned, but when it appears that prior intelligence is faulty, Carr has to improvise.  And complications also include mistrust of his co-workers, who show no hesitation at double-crossing or stealing from him and the sponsor who fronts costs.  At the same time, Carr has to solve his own emotions about his father and his care as he is slowly dying.

The novel is so well-written and plotted, with a conclusion so unexpected, that this reader wished it would continue.  Needless to say, there isn’t much more one could add to encourage another reader to pick it up.  So giving it a strong recommendation is an easy decision.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2011.

Book Reviews: A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear, Cold Wind by C.J. Box, The Informationist by Taylor Stevens, Past Tense by Catherine Aird, and Bank of the Black Sheep by Robert Lewis

A Lesson in Secrets
Jacqueline Winspear
Harper, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-06-172767-2
Hardcover

The common characteristics of the Maisie Dobbs series are the growth in the character, developments over time and, of course, current events. In the present novel Maisie, who served as a nurse in France during World War I (after having been a servant girl before), has grown over the years, mentored by Dr. Maurice Blanche.  Now, in 1932, she has been made independently wealthy as Blanche’s heir, profitably operating her investigation business, and is ripe for a new adventure.

Before he died, Blanche predicted that intelligence work for the crown was in Maisie’s future.  And so, it comes to pass that she is recruited to participate in an investigation being conducted by the joint efforts of Scotland Yard’s Special Branch and the Secret Service.  She is to pose as a junior lecturer in philosophy (another of her talents, apparently) at a college in Cambridge founded by Greville Liddicote, a pacifist who has published a number of children’s books, including an anti-war novel that was banned during the Great War.  Maisie is to monitor activities at the school.

However, where Maisie is concerned, can various other sub-plots not arise?  To begin with, she’s trying to get her father to move from his cottage to the manor she inherited (to no avail), induce her assistant, Billy Beale, to accept a house in which to move his growing family, help a woman whose husband is killed in a questionable accident at work, and, last but not least, help solve the murder of Liddicote (while told specifically her brief is her intelligence assignment and not getting involved in the murder inquiry).

The story progresses in a persuasive manner, smoothly written.  It emerges just as Adolph Hitler is rising to lead Germany, giving a hint to the coming of World War II, as Maisie detects Nazi sympathizers in the college, and, indeed in unsuspecting Britain.  A welcome addition to the series, this newest entry is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Cold Wind
C.J. Box
Putnam, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-399-15735-6
Hardcover

It’s not easy being a game warden, especially if your name is Joe Pickett and you keep getting sidetracked with all kinds of side issues, murders, assignments from the governor and so on.  In this, the 11th in the series, there are a few twists, including a look at the issue of wind energy.

But first for the main plot:  Joe’s less-than-beloved mother-in-law is indicted for the murder of her wealthy fifth husband, “The Earl,” who had begun the largest wind farm in Wyoming at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars.  Joe’s beloved wife, Marybeth, implores Joe to find the real killer.  Meanwhile, his mysterious buddy, Nate, suffers the loss of his lover in an attempt on his life, setting up a subplot in which the two men reconcile after a falling out in a previous book.

As the story progresses, smoothly and interestingly, all is not as it seems. As usual, the author provides sweeping and beautiful vistas of the countryside, and in-depth insights into the characters.

Heartily recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, June 2011.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The Informationist
Taylor Stevens
Crown, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-307-71709-2
Hardcover

A new protagonist, Vanessa (Ness) “Michael” Munroe makes her first appearance in this debut thriller, apparently destined to be a series with the author hard at work on the next two books.  Sort of a bionic woman, Munroe is capable of most anything from finding information for corporate clients to murder.

What she has not done so far is find missing persons, at least until she is retained to accomplish what others over a four-year period have failed to do:  Find a young girl named Emily in Africa, or prove that she has met her death while she was traveling there with two male companions.  The quest brings Munroe back to Equatorial Guinea and Cameroon where she grew up.  It is a trip filled with danger and betrayal, as she seeks the missing girl with the help of Francisco Beyard, whom she met as a 14-year-old when she served in his mercenary band.

It is unusual for a first effort to be as absorbing as is this novel, with a fast pace and intricate plot.  Certainly the denouement is worthy of a more seasoned author.  Ordinarily, this reader reacts with apprehension when the protagonist seems super-human, but was not disturbed by Munroe’s antics.  So it is with no hesitation that the novel is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Past Tense
Catherine Aird
Minotaur Books, March 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-67291-1
Hardcover

This is the newest in the Sloan and Crosby mystery series, DCI Sloan and Constable Crosby, that is, the quaint English combination resembling Abbott and Costello with an accent.  A couple of seemingly unrelated deaths, one of natural causes, the other perhaps murder, set off a police procedural in which a series of unconnected events and circumstances seem to make no sense.

Written in a style that befits the English countryside, the dialog is of a unique tone.  The plot moves forward without a hint to the reader as to the conclusion, which, may or may not be a good thing.  But it is a light and enjoyable read, and it is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.

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Bank of the Black Sheep
Robert Lewis
Serpent’s Tail, March 2011
ISBN: 978-1-84668-745-7
Trade Paperback

Robin Llywelyn, ostensibly a private detective, wakes up in a hospice with amnesia, handcuffed to a bed after a week-long infusion of morphine. Such a state gives him a real slow start, along with the reader.  Additionally, he is told he has lung cancer with just a couple of months to live. Actually, it seems from what follows that he can go on forever.

It turns out that Llywelyn was involved in some kind of scam, but of course he can’t remember what it was.  And so, he sets out inadvertently to find out about his past, bumbling his way to make a final score and to atone for his past transgressions before his end. For much of the novel, to this reader, it dragged on with a lot of wearying prose and observations.  It is not until near the conclusion that the novel really becomes interesting, and then we are drawn into the real story.

Bank apparently is the last in a trilogy of Llywelyn detective stories and, given the medical prognosis, it would seem to be just that.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, July 2011.