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 Reviews: A Wedding to Die For by Radine Trees Nehring, The Demands by Mark Billingham, Viral by James Lilliefors, The Prophet by Michael Koryta, and They Disappeared by Rick Mofina

A Wedding to Die For
Radine Trees Nehring
St. Kitts Press, 2006
ISBN No. 978-1-931206-01-3
Trade Paperback

Here Comes The Bride and this time it is Carrie McCrite who is getting married.  But she is confused about how to have a wonderful wedding but one that is appropriate for a mature bride and groom.

On the advice of her friends Henry and Carrie take a trip to inspect The Crescent Hotel in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  Carrie immediately falls in love with the place and decides it is indeed a perfect place for a wedding.

In trying to plan the wedding Carrie and Henry are plunged into a vicious scheme to run a florist and his family out of Eureka Springs.  Certain residents are prejudiced and don’t want Chandra and Ashur Mukherjee, owners of Artistic Floral Designs of Eureka Springs, to continue business in their town.

Carrie and Henry make friends with the two and try to help them out through a bombing and a murder.  Other friends of Carrie and Henry join in to help as well.

But even in Eureka Springs Carrie can’t escape the ghost bride wearing red who has been haunting her dreams.

I enjoyed the characters in the books and the descriptions of the area.  Nehring tells a good story and gives a good description of how an older couple deciding on a wedding might feel.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, May 2007.

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The Demands
Mark Billingham
Mulholland Books, 2012
ISBN No. 978-0-316-12663-2
Hardcover

We are all creatures of habit, and Helen Weeks is no exception.   Helen, a detective for the police department and a single mother, stops at a newsagent every morning for her newspaper, gum and some candy.  As Helen is paying for her items three boys walk into the shop wrestling with each other and messing with the stock.  Javed Akhtar, the owner, chases the boys out of the shop.  Helen and the man behind her in the store are shocked when Akhtar locks the door to the shop and pulls a gun on his two customers.

So begins a situation that is terrifying to the hostages as well as the police attempting to see them released without harm.  The hostages are handcuffed to the radiator. Stephen Mitchell, the other customer taken hostage, seems to think that Helen can use her familiarity with Akhtar and her skills as a detective to miraculously rescue them from the situation.  But he soon realizes she has no power over Akhtar.

Akhtar orders Helen to get in touch with a detective named Thorne.  Helen knows Thorne since she dealt with him when her boyfriend was killed.  Helen learns Akhtar’s son, Amin Akhtar, was involved in a manslaughter case and sentenced to prison. Amin killed himself in Barndale Young Offenders Institution eight weeks earlier.  Thorne is familiar with the manslaughter case and had been surprised the boy got the stiff sentence that he did.

Akhtar does not believe that his son’s death was a suicide and he is demanding that Thorne find out what really happened.  Thorne is racing against time in his investigation into the boy’s death.  Two people’s lives are at stake and it is up to him to save them.  But first he must satisfy all of Akhtar’s questions and prove that his son was murdered.

As Thorne investigates, he finds more and more puzzling things about the conviction and the boy’s death – some that will come as a shock to Akhtar.  The story switches back and forth between Thorne who is seeking answers on the outside and Helen Weeks who is one of the hostages.  It is a race against time as the police outside the newsagent’s shop try to determine whether to go in with force or hope Thorne comes up with answers.

Mark Billingham introduced Sgt. Helen Weeks in the novel In the DarkThe Demands bring Weeks and Thorne together and this reader hopes for more adventures involving Weeks and Thorne.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, May 2012.

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Viral
James Lilliefors
Soho Press, Inc., 2012
ISBN No. 978-1-61695-068-2
Hardcover

Two brothers separated by years and miles work together to stop an evil plan to spread a deadly virus that will change the world.  Charles Mallory is a private intelligence contractor and former CIA operative.  His brother Jon, an investigative reporter, is alarmed when a call from his brother Charles is not received as scheduled.  Charles is counting on Jon to be a witness to some event that he has yet to reveal to Jon.

Charles is investigating a lead found in a message left by his father in a safe deposit box.  He is acting undercover, using fictitious names but someone is alert to his movements and Charles knows that he is in danger.   When Jon begins to search for his brother Charles leaves clues that only his brother would be able to follow.  Jon is able to decipher the clues but is still lost as to what he is to witness.

Terrible events are happening in a remote area of Africa.  People go to bed at night and just never wake up.  A whole village is wiped out.  Charles is working against time to find out who is behind the scheme and figure out how to put a stop to it before there are more deaths.

The book shifts back and forth between Jon and Charles as well as some of Jon’s contacts in Africa.  The book is well written but at times, it was hard to keep the characters straight.  The descriptions are very graphic and not to be read by a squeamish reader. The entire plot is not revealed until well into the novel.  Viral is an exciting book that keeps the reader on edge.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, June 2012.

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The Prophet
Michael Koryta
Little, Brown and Company, 2012
ISBN No. 978-0-316-12261-0
Hardcover

Marie Austin was picked up on her way home from school, brutally attacked and killed.  The death of Marie had a profound effect on her brothers Adam and Kent.  The family was torn apart by the tragedy.  Both boys were outstanding football players.  Kent went on to become a coach at the high school.  Adam became a bondsman and private detective.  Adam felt responsible for his sister’s death.  He was to pick her up and give her a ride home from school but instead he picked up Chelsea Salinas and spent the evening with her.

Adam is still with Chelsea even though she is married.  Her husband is in prison.  Adam owns his parents house along with his brother Kent.  Adam has reconstructed Marie’s room to be exactly as it was when she was alive and spends many hours in Marie’s room.

Kent has married and loves his job as Coach of the local football team.  A championship is in sight and Kent is busy preparing his team.  Kent is also deeply religious and became involved in visiting prisoners.  Adam is furious that Kent has taken this road in life.  Adam still attends the games coached by his brother but there is no closeness between the two brothers.

This all changes when another girl dies.  A girl directly connected to Adam.  Adam vows that he will find her killer and avenge her death.  When a person connected to the young girl’s killing threatens Kent and his family, the two brothers join together to protect Kent’s family and stop the killer.  Although seemingly the brothers are working together, Adam keeps Kent in the dark about some facts in the case and strikes out on his own.

The Prophet is a very exciting book with characters that I loved.  As I neared the end of the book I postponed reading the final pages.  I just did not want this book to end.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, August 2012.

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They Disappeared
Rick Mofina
Harlequin MIRA, 2012
ISBN No. 978-0778313816
Mass Market Paperback

Cole Griffin is nine years old and his dream is to see Manhattan and that dream is about to come true.  Jeff, Cole’s father, is a mechanic and volunteer fire fighter in the family’s Laurel, Montana hometown.  Sarah, Cole’s mother, is a schoolteacher.  The family of three had been a family of four until Cole’s baby sister died.  Since Cole’s baby sister died, Jeff and Sarah had been holding the family together with a thread.  Neither parent is good at handling their grief and this has caused a rift in their marriage. The couple is hoping the rift can be repaired during this family vacation.  The decision to visit New York is two-fold.  Cole will have his dream fulfilled and Jeff and Sarah hope to be able to put their troubles behind them.

Fate has a way of changing the best-laid plans and the Griffin’s are thrown a curve when they pick up their bags at the airport. Cole picked up what appeared to be his bag but when the Griffin’s get to the hotel it is discovered that Cole has someone else’s bag.  None of the contents are Cole’s but he is fascinated with a tiny plastic toy jet that falls out of the bag.  Arrangements are made to meet with the owner of the bag that Cole picked up by mistake and the exchange is made but with a small but very important exception.  Cole left the plastic jet on the windowsill in the hotel.

When Jeff steps into a shop and leaves Sarah and Cole on the street the mother and son are abducted.  It seems the plastic jet is a very important piece in a group of terrorists plan.  The group has no concern for the lives of Cole and his mother and will take any step necessary to get the jet back.  When Jeff leaves the shop, he finds his wife and son gone.  Frantically Jeff contacts the police.

The police investigate but not to Jeff’s satisfaction.  Jeff begins his own investigation and surprisingly is a very good detective.  With his son and wife at risk, Jeff manages to finds clues faster than the police do.

The hunt is exciting and terrifying and always there is the fear of what the terrorists will do to Sarah and Cole before Jeff and the police can uncover their location.

Rick Mofina draws on his experience as a news reporter to bring the reader thrillers such as They Disappeared.  The story keeps the reader on edge as the danger mounts for the Griffin family. I’ve enjoyed many of Rick Mofina‘s books.  He always gives the reader an exciting story.

Reviewed by Patricia E. Reid, October 2012.

Book Review: Viral by James Lilliefors

Viral
James Lilliefors
Soho Crime, April 2012
ISBN 978-1-61695-068-2
Hardcover

From the publisher—

In remote pockets of the Third World, a deadly virus is quietly sweeping through impoverished farming villages and shanty towns with frightening speed and potency. Meanwhile, in Washington, a three-word message left in a safe-deposit box may be the key to stopping the crisis–if, that is, Charles Mallory, a private intelligence contractor and former CIA operative, can decipher the puzzle before time runs out.


What Mallory begins to discover are the traces of a secret war, with a bold objective–to create a new, technologically advanced society. With the help of his brother Jon, an investigative reporter, can he break the story to the world before it is too late–before a planned “humane depopulation” takes place?


As the stakes and strategies of this secret war become more evident, the Mallory brothers find themselves in a complex game of wits with an enemy they can’t see: a new sort of superpower led by a brilliant, elusive tactician who believes that ends justify means.

What is Covenant?

Three small, obscure African countries are the focus of a plan to solve the Third World “problem”, a plan that involves biological weapons and the rampant corruption and poverty that plague such countries. A kernel of a well-intentioned idea has evolved into a megalomaniacal assumption that the end does, indeed, justify the means and overwhelming amounts of money have made it possible to accomplish a terrible purpose.

As in any good thriller, uncertainty is paramount and the reader is never quite sure where the dividing line might be between the good guys and the bad. Surprises and twists abound and Mr. Lilliefors does an admirable job of keeping the reader teetering on the edge along with his heroes and heroines. Cryptic puzzles, terrorism, greed and the dangers of good intentions all serve to keep the protagonists—and the reader—unbalanced in this race to stop the horror that has already begun and  that is poised to wipe out millions of lives.

There are some rather gruesome scenes that are not for the squeamish and the author brings the reader into the story with chilling words. Chapters 20, 21 and 49, in particular, show just how high the stakes are and, although they are not easy to get through, they are effective and necessary.

I really disliked one particular character besides the actual villains (who, in some cases, show signs of humanity)  and wish Jon Mallory had had more of a backbone regarding this person’s duplicity and self-centeredness. I suppose we can’t expect heroes to always see through the facade, though; perhaps that character will be more honorable and likeable in future books. Whether or not that happens, I’m looking forward to more tales about the Mallory brothers.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, May 2012.

Feit Book Reviews X 3

Queen of the Night
J.A. Jance
William Morrow & Company, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-123924-3
Hardcover

With a bow [by dedicating the book] to the late Tony Hillerman, who was a master at the genre of this novel (and the predecessors in the saga of the Walker family), J.A. Jance has written a murder mystery surrounded by the further development in the family’s history peppered with lots of Indian lore.

The eponymous Queen is a once-a-year blossoming cactus whose legendary beginnings, like many of the tales in the novel, are based on the culture and history of the Tohono O’odhap people of southern Arizona.  It plays a minor, but important, role in the story as the site of the contemporary murder of four people.  Meanwhile, former homicide
detective Brandon Walker inherits a 50-year-old open case from his Last Chance cold case mentor, one in which a popular coed was stabbed to death in San Diego while on a school break.

The broad sweep of the Walker saga provides interesting and deep personal observations about the characters and what motivates them.  The plot lines in the novel are fairly complex, but move forward in a logical pattern.  As usual, the writing is uncomplicated with beautiful descriptions of the Arizona terrain, and especially of the night-blooming cereus (the Queen of the Night) particularly appealing.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

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The Last Lie
Stephen White
Dutton, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-525-95177-3
Hardcover

In a follow-up to the excellent The Siege, author Stephen White not only brings back detective Sam Purdy [introduced in that standalone], but also Alan Gregory, psychiatrist and clinical psychologist and long-standing series protagonist, and his wife, DDA Lauren.

From a rather curious opening dealing with his ‘supervisory’ duties involving sessions with younger clinicians, the scene is juxtaposed with that of a party [or, as Alan will later frequently refer to it, a “damn housewarming”] at the home of Alan and Lauren’s new neighbors in the Spanish Hills section, their “quiet corner of Colorado paradise.”  The fact that new people have moved into the neighboring property is fraught with emotional landmines for the Gregory family, as the former owners were close friends, husband and wife having each been killed in separate, horrific incidents [each the subject of prior novels].

One might think of Alan Gregory as, among other things, a kind of male Jessica Fletcher, whose friends and neighbors frequently die a tragic death.  This time, however, it is not a death, but a possible rape, that occurs at his new neighbors’ house.  I say ‘possible’ because the victim isn’t sure what happened to her, only that she’d been the victim of . . . something.  The book starts off more slowly than I recall Mr. White’s novels usually do; unsurprisingly, the payoff is
worth the relatively slow build-up.

I particularly liked the descriptions of area natives:  “Colorado is home, almost exclusively, to weather optimists . . . some people wear their Boulder-ness so visibly that it is as obvious as a brightly colored outer garment.”  Alan’s personal life is again a major story line, i.e., marital issues that are being “worked through;” Lauren’s ever-worsening MS; their daughter Gracie, approaching adolescence; and Jonas, the son of their murdered neighbors, who Lauren and Alan are now raising.  Conflict-of-interest questions abound.  The usual quotient of suspense that Mr. White’s readers expect is present in ample measure.

Reviewed by Gloria Feit, October 2010.

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Moscow Sting
Alex Dryden
Harper Ecco, 2010
ISBN: 978-0-06-196684-2
Hardcover

There is a lot to like about this book, and much to dislike.  To begin with, it is an interesting and diverting plot, reminiscent of all the Cold War novels of the past, albeit set in present-day circumstances.  However, the characters seem wooden, caricatures filling in the blanks.  Moscow Sting is the sequel to Red to Black, with Anna Resnikov, the KGB Colonel who defected to the West to marry the assassinated former MI6 agent Finn, again playing a major role.

It seems everyone wants to find Anna who was hidden in the south of France with her two-year-old son by the French security arm, and is discovered accidentally by an ex-CIA agent who tries to sell her whereabouts for half a million dollars to the Russians, English and Americans.  She and her son are “rescued” by a private United States intelligence company headed by a larger-than-life personage, who takes them to the U.S. to “debrief” her.  The reason she is so important is the relationship Finn had with Mikhail, an informant extremely close to Vladimir Putin, and who she presumably knows.

George Washington warned against “foreign entanglements” and Dwight Eisenhower against the military-industrial establishment.  However, this novel provides strong reason to distrust the intelligence community, whether public like the CIA or MI6, or private.  Each has its shortcomings, with the latter only driven by self-interest which can be as disastrous as, perhaps, the demonstrated ineptness of employees of the official agencies.  Written at a fast pace, the tale
more often than not is exciting and enlightening, despite its shortcomings.

Recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, October 2010.

Book Review: Fly By Wire by Ward Larsen

Fly By Wire
Ward Larsen
Oceanview Press, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-933515-86-1
Hardcover

An unusual and fresh plot device blends world finance, international espionage, religious zealotry and cutting edge aviation technology in a fine and mostly fast-paced thriller.  It is clear that the author knows intimately the setting of his story, aviation accident investigation.  A new design, a flying wing cargo plane, has crashed in France and a former Air Force pilot, now working as an accident investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board is sent to the crash site as liaison.  His name is Jammer Davis and he’s something of a hot-shot loose cannon.  Think the macho pilots in the movie “Top Gun,” and you get the idea.

Davis’s life is complicated by the presence of his teen-aged daughter-and her dating difficulties-Davis is a widower. It’s a nice touch and while Davis is in France struggling to figure out a series of odd circumstances around the place crash, his daughter occasionally calls him on his cell, disturbing and altering the rhythm of the plot.  The story line is also interrupted from time to time by the machinations of the evil cabal behind the plot which serves to ramp up the tension.  The author is careful to dole out intriguing information in tantalizing dollops which maintains reader interest.

That’s a good thing, because there are several sections of fairly technical information which are necessary to explain the plot, but occasionally are too long for my taste.  The major flaw in the novel is the somewhat old fashioned macho attitude expressed by the narrative in several places. There is at times a sense we are living once again in a simpler time when there was a perception that men and especially women had their defined roles with lines to be crossed at considerable personal risk.  It was a time when enemies of the nation were always summarily dealt with.  Moral ambiguities and our system of legal niceties were almost as much obstacles to getting the right thing done, as protection of the rights of everyone.

With these caveats, I found Fly By Wire to be a rousing patriotic story that moves along at a decent pace to an eminently satisfying conclusion.  I particularly like the domestic surprise at the end.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2010.