Category Archives: Thrillers

Scone Island – Frederick Ramsay The Happiness Advantage – Shawn Achor

Still reading and even more all over the map than during the challenge. In some ways I miss the discipline of one book and one blog post per day. But I would have to be an heiress to keep that up so it is something of a relief to let go of the deadlines. Oddly, though, I detest the daily grind of imposed work-for-hire that eats hours of time in research and writing to formula and for a pittance. It was slightly easier to face that when I wrote something just because I wanted to every day. That development could use more thought.

Scone Island was a pretty good adventure–political thriller, if you can imagine such a thing set on a sparsely inhabited tiny island off the coast of Maine with no electricity or phone service but plenty of spooks and bad guys out to get them. Frederick Ramsay writes convincingly about CIA operations and various National Security Agency type scenarios. His bio doesn’t list any insider experience though so I wondered for the whole book how much of it I could trust and how much wouldn’t pass scrutiny by a true intelligence agent.

The hero of the story is Ike Schwartz, a small-town sheriff now and a former undercover operative who is suddenly a target in a deadly web of assassinations. His serious heartthrob, Dr. Ruth Dennis, the president of a university, is recovering from a health trauma involving a broken leg as well as a brutal year managing a faculty mutiny and the two run away to Scone Island for some R&R. Ruth has inherited a cottage from her aunt and Ike slips a generator and a real coffee pot into their gear, not being much of a fan of roughing it. They arrive on Scone Island to hear about a fatal fall from a cliff that will affect, almost immediately, their own safety.

Lots happens. Some of it is very far out there. Good amount of tension and the requisite international issue at stake. Ruth’s mother Eden is a pistol. I liked it enough to read another one–it’s part of a series–but the location really did have its limits and the constant verbal sparring between Ruth and Ike was exhausting after a while.

The Happiness Advantage is Shawn Achor’s bible of how–and why–to be happy. It’s a positive psychology book that cites an impressive number of studies showing the effect optimism and a feeling of well-being can have on your health, career, productivity, longevity and other significant bits of your life. I really really liked the first half of the book in which Achor talks about the cult of the average, positive outliers, the power of your mindset, the tetris effect (getting stuck in a mind-loop), and, in general, how happiness precedes success and not the other way around. Lots of very good science in language a lay person can easily absorb. (Achor, like the Harvard grad student he was, footnotes his references copiously at the end of the book.)

The second half seemed to stretch on–and on. Achor is a corporate trainer and I think he just turned the advice too much into career and company success tips for me. I preferred the personal information and I’ve read (or been subjected to) most of the corporate remedy stuff before. Heavy social networking is one of Achor’s rules for achievement, for instance,  and that seemed tiresome, even though I know connection and community are mental health pluses. But Achor does have a fair amount to say about how your mind and attitude directly impact the minutest details of your existence so The Happiness Advantage holds up.  Stick with the early chapters unless you are a corporate manager trying to jazz your team out of a slump.

 The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work   Shawn Achor | Crown Business   2010

 Scone Island: An Ike Schwartz Mystery   Frederick Ramsay| Poisoned Pen Press  2012

Treason at Lisson Grove – Anne Perry

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Really, I was so glad to find an Anne Perry crime story on the library shelves I could have wept.  No experimental literary fails. No mind-numbing clog of words to cut through. No plot that assumes I have the intelligence of a dung beetle and not one iota more than its sophistication. (Sincere apologies to dung beetles.) Just a well-made Victorian thriller with Charlotte and Thomas Pitt sharing the honors and the remarkable Vespasia in a brilliant and essential cameo role. Treason at Lisson Grove was a delight.

I read it until I couldn’t make out the words anymore just before turning out the light. I read it in line waiting for free tickets to the Shakespeare Festival in the park–didn’t score any but the weather was perfect. I read it after the daily agony of coaxing my wheezing laptop through the tedious research needed to write web content that syphons off all the time I should be writing a book. It was excellent Anne Perry, which is to say that the story and the characters and the dilemma hold up splendidly and spending time in that book was pure pleasure.

Treachery is everywhere in the Special Branch and the very future of England is at stake as Thomas Pitt chases a spooked informant down alleys and through traffic with the help of a junior colleague. He is too late. The informant is stabbed–throat slit–moments before Pitt reaches him and the two detectives set off in pursuit of a murderer. So it begins. Pitt has no idea what he is pursuing. He and the colleague end up in France just as his mentor, the head of Special Branch, is ignominiously removed from office under the cloud of an embezzlement that cost an Irish collaborator who trusted him his life. Tip of the iceberg. Victor Narraway has painful ghosts in Ireland, and plenty of the living with long memories who hate him enough to nurture revenge plots for decades. So he plans to leave at once for Dublin.

Charlotte Pitt doesn’t hesitate to inform Narraway she is going along to help discover the truth. If his career is ruined, so is her husband’s–and her family homeless, no hope of work or an income to raise their children, everyone out to menial jobs, even the kids. Besides, she believes Narraway has been framed and she sees how completely wrecked his life is without the job that defines it. Her dour new housekeeper chooses that moment to walk out. Pitt is incommunicado in France on a stakeout. Things couldn’t be worse. And then Pitt realizes he has been set up to remove him from London just as some dark political plot is about to unfold.

Complete craziness in Dublin, Dover, London and the Isle of Wight follows. Treason at Lisson Grove is very good. Anne Perry is so reliable.  More than fifty books in four separate series. I wish I could write that fast and that well.

Treason at Lisson Grove: A Charlotte and Thomas Pitt Novel  Anne Perry | Ballantine Books   2011

The Quiet Girl – Peter Høeg

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The Quiet Girl is not a novel to attempt in one day–or many days.  It’s a Fellini-esque, Dali-like  mind-warp filled with circus clowns, psychic children, J.S. Bach, some weird hyper-synesthesia, a plot that threatenes to take out Copehagen and disrupt the normal order of things, kidnapped children, villains, heroes, nuns and cops who can’t be pinned down or trusted.  Peter Høeg must mainline some serious mind-altering substances before he sits down to write every day.

Kasper Krone is an internationally-celebrated clown, addicted gambler wanted for a massive amount of unsettled debt, oddly able to hear tones, notes and music in everything and to identify people, emotions, motives and places just by listening.  He cuts a deal with some unholy powerful nuns to track down a group of kidnapped kids with dangerous psychic abilities in exchange for some relief from his legal problems. And he falls under the spell of one of those kids, a young girl named KlaraMaria who carries a silence around with her like an irresistible weapon. Krone is hooked. He is also betrayed, in life and in love, and constantly on the run. And his father is dying rather spectacularly but still willing to pull strings to find critical information. To make things more surreal, at dire moments Krone likes to play the violin with some virtuosity, favoring the Bach Chaconne, even when his wrist is broken. Some clown.

Half the time I had no idea what was going on. Maybe considerably more than half. The book was mesmerizing but I had no real hope of cracking its code. Høeg takes the idea of scene reversals very seriously–as soon as something happens another event immediately contradicts it and piles complication on complication. Plus, the main characters toss around philosophical observations and cryptic aphorisms like badminton shuttlecocks. And they shift in and out of villainy with every passing paragraph. Who are the actual bad guys–everybody? Nobody?

I think this is an anti-war philosophical thriller–that would be my best guess. But what I really think is that Høeg has written a book about what it is like to give yourself over to taking care of a child and to launching her, with all her fabulous new abilities, into a future you can only dimly see. Plot as metaphor. Why not? The circus is a performance of illusion and unpredictability; a clown’s routine is a theatrical interlude  in which anything might happen next–and often does. So is this really interesting, really baffling book. 

The Quiet Girl: A Novel   Peter Høeg | Farrar, Straus and Giroux    2006

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln – Stephen L. Carter

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Stephen L. Carter’s thriller rewrites history in a web spun with so much intrigue, animosity, arrogance, power-mongering, posturing and corruption it might as well take place in Washington today. His conceit is that Lincoln survived the events at the Ford Theatre only to be charged with impeachment and face a political battle for his life. The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is a fascinating journey through post-Civil War Washington and the uneasy adjustment of a society absorbing freed slaves and the entry of educated blacks into all-white sanctuaries as peers. It’s a fairly rough integration.

Abigail Canner is a recent graduate of Oberlin, ambitious to pass the bar and practice law, excited about her acceptance as a clerk at the law firm handling Lincoln’s impeachment case. The morning she arrives for work she discovers that she isn’t to be a brilliant young black law clerk–just a clerk, a kind of glorified office staff with a broom and dustpan and little else to do. So she decides to read law on her own, with permission to borrow the firm’s books. And, because she is wicked intelligent, self-confident, stubborn and perceptive, she soon impresses an astonishing number of prominent Washingtonians and is invited to salons and dinner and catches the eyes of a few of the capital’s most eligible bachelors.

But this is not a romance. Abby is not looking for a boyfriend–her fiancee went missing in the war and she believes he will return. Her fellow law clerk is smitten nearly at once, despite the looming presence of his own powerfully-connected fiancee. And then one of the law partners managing the president’s case is brutally murdered along with a young black woman and Abby suspects the impeachment proceedings are the motive.

Secrets abound, are whispered to eager ears, hidden from sight, rumored  but unproven. There is a mysterious missing letter and a break-in at the law firm’s offices. Abby comes across several break-ins in the course of this novel and nearly doesn’t survive one of them. She gathers evidence and puzzles over the meaning of clues and coincidences–great thriller stuff. I enjoyed an historical perspective on the physical layout of a city I lived in for a number of years when I worked in the Senate. And I liked the story–good one. Credible and well-done.

I did wonder at Abby’s surprisingly easy acceptance into the halls of power and the social scene–I wouldn’t have expected Washington to be that open. Rather, her encounters with prejudice were more in the nature of an annoyance than a crippling reality. And it is crazy-making to keep track of the possible conspirators and which appointee has designs on which political office and what capitalist controls which revenue stream or industry with an agenda. But those are minor quibbles.

Good book–half-blind from staying up to finish it. But a very satisfying story with a twist or two–or three at the end that gets history back on track. Now maybe I’ll check out “Abe Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” to see what further imaginative purpose can be made of an historic icon. “Fifty Shades of Abe” maybe. Or maybe not.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln   Stephen L. Carter | Alfred A. Knopf   2012

The Leopard – Jo Nesbø

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 Jo Nesbø’s Nordic crime thriller is really really good. The Leopard is dense with predators and prey, the crimes are inventive and horrific, the heroes are terribly flawed. I couldn’t put it down. Well, slight exaggeration. I had to put it down to deliver on some work and to sleep for a few hours, reluctantly. Harry Hole–bad name, I suppose it isn’t as much of a fail in Norwegian–is a brilliant homicide detective whose last serial killer solve cost him everything he cared about in life and left him wrecked and off the force. He’s living in a hostel and a few opium dens in Hong Kong when he is persuaded to return to Norway because his father is dying.

The real reason he is hunted down and escorted home is that another serial killer is drowning young women in their own blood–the cirme scenes and the corpses are inexplicable and nobody can match Harry’s instincts and solve rate.  He wants no part of it, and then an MP is bizarrely murdered in a public pool and he’s hooked. Again. Things do not go well. Harry is a barely recovering drunk with a modest opium jones. His cop shop is in the crosshairs of an ambitious Kripos commissioner, a special branch with big designs on the Crime Squad’s homicide jurisdiction. Harry is given a basement boiler room at the end of a tunnel that connects the jail to the Crime Squad and assigned two officers to help him track the killer, the beautiful and somewhat devious Kaja who lured him from Hong Kong and an old colleague from Harry’s earlier days on the force.

Murders proliferate and get creepier as do the complications, false solutions, promising leads, dead ends and endless political maneuvering for power. Harry is a mess but he’s still a wizard at uncovering evidence and conjecturing motive. Bellman, the head of Kripos, steals his thunder every time. And the crimes keep unspooling, out of control and beyond reason. As soon as a clue is resolved, the plot jags off in another direction and you realize, as does Harry, that nothing has been solved. The evil is layer upon layer of darkness and everyone is shadowed by it. At some point, Harry realizes that the murderer is toying with him. The murderer joins a long list.

Harry Hole, name aside, is a great character-sleuth-hero. Lots of interesting characters crawling all over the book. Unexpected plot developments, sick but believable. Various reasons for the tension to rise. As much as I crave a little light in books to off-set the daily chaos, The Leopard was captivating and completely enjoyable. I doubt I will read the prequel, The Snowman, anytime soon–can only take so much depravity at a time–but it’s probably just as good. Jo Nesbø draws you into the snow and the darkness with all the assurance of a master. I mean it as a compliment when I say he has a great criminal mind. 

The Leopard (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)   Jo Nesbø | Alfred A. Knopf  2011

The Jaguar – T. Jefferson Parker

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The Jaguar is a Faustian tale of corruption, retribution, depravity and the hopelessness of battling–or surviving–the international drug trade. Charlie Hood, L.A. sheriff’s deputy, is T. Jefferson Parker’s idealistic sleuth. Hood isn’t naive, exactly, and  is nonchalant about placing himself in grave danger to achieve his objectives. But the world of the narcotrafficantes is so relentlessly dark, murderous and all-powerful that his core optimism strains credibility.

When Erin McKenna, successful songwriter, singer and pregnant wife of Bradley, a corrupt lawman who adores her, is kidnapped by the leader of the Gulf Cartel, the ransom is a million U.S. dollars and an odd request. Benjamin Armenta, eccentric narco-jefe who lives in a crumbling folly in the Yucatan jungle known as El Castillo, wants her to write and record an album for him. The castle contains, among other extravagances, a state-of-the-art recording studio and Erin barters talent for time so her husband and the friends, including Hood, he has enlisted to spring Erin can reach her. If time runs out, the cosmopolitan drug lord has promised to skin her alive. As Erin witnesses gruesome murders carried out in front of festive audiences in the castle, she has no doubt that Armenta means to keep his word. And she begins to doubt her husband, the phenomenal amount of material wealth they enjoy, and the shifting grounds of her marriage.

Parker writes a slick, compelling crime thriller with reasonably complex characters and enough color to damage your retinas. He puts you inside the brutal and ugly drug trade with Mexico and introduces you to sadists, art lovers, regretful criminals and stubbornly honest gumshoes–both American and Mexican. A number of them get killed. Erin is a plucky heroine from the first and constantly plots ways to save herself and her unborn son. The drug lord tells her of the murder of his angelic son and introduces her to the twisted rapist-son who threatens her with everything in his arsenal of perversity. There are scenes of horror, lovingly detailed. Lots of tension. A somewhat unbelievable subplot of a quest that twines into the kidnap-rescue mission in a seriously creepy way.

The Jaguar contains an ominous black jaguar, kept in the castle as one of the wild exotic pets. It also has its Mephistopheles and I’m not sure what we are supposed to make of him finally. He does seem to extract his blood-oath fealty and has very odd omniscience and powers. He uses primitive tools to achieve his ends and, in some cases, no discernible means whatsoever to discover damning information. He’s also a deadly puppet-master and so Parker has written something more than a cop-mystery-international-thriller-genre book.

I thought it was quite good. I also thought I have little interest in these unevolved shoot-‘em-ups and violence-plagued fictions any more. They seem like artifacts of a human era that has lasted eons past its time. The planet and its creatures–Homo sapiens included–can not sustain civilizations based on greed, war, materialism, raw power and an absence of respect for nurture, spirit, art and light. Just. Too. Dark. To be fair, one of the most crooked characters in this book does love art although he is incapable of actually producing any himself. In the end, that love is part of what undoes him. But the people who survive still live in the doomed world–damage, violence, a soul entirely sold to the devil, a lawless, loveless land. Time for some Minoan fantasies to clear my head, if only I knew of any books like that.

The Jaguar (Charlie Hood)   T. Jefferson Parker | Dutton   2012

The Expats – Chris Pavone

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‘Kate Moore’ is who she is now but she was Katherine—her maiden name was her professional name until Derek Moore announced that the family could move immediately from Washington DC to Luxembourg, if Kate was willing. She was more than willing—to shed the double life, the lies, the fear and the danger of her career and focus on her two little boys and a normal existence as an expat in Europe. Derek is a wonderful, faithful, beloved, slightly naive and only moderately successful technology nerd and he is Kate’s sanctuary in the brutal world of espionage and dirty dealing that she has never shared with him.

The Expats, an intricate plot that peels off layers like petals of an onion, is Chris Pavone’s imagined high-tech, high-finance, hell or high water suspense that pits Kate against nearly everybody she encounters. Derek works for a mystery bank with an undisclosed office, doing something in security he never quite manages to explain to Kate’s satisfaction. He begins to travel constantly and unexpectedly and comes home late every night. Kate is bored in the company of other expat mothers who spend their days housecleaning, dropping off and picking up children from school, ferrying the kids to play dates, shopping and cooking. She takes up tennis but feels like she’s losing her mind. Then a new American couple arrives in Luxembourg and begins to cultivate Kate’s friendship aggressively. And, of course, they are not what they seem.

The book is like a hall of mirrors. Kate sees shadows where there are shadows but misses some obvious suspicious behavior, even as her suspicions heighten. What is Derek up to? Who are her new friends? How will she survive fulltime motherhood and pick up endless toys without throwing them against the wall? Why is she compelled to revert to her clandestine modus operandi, spy on her own husband, buy a gun? Will the one major mistake she made in her field operative days finally catch up with her? How can she keep her family safe in the threatening atmosphere that gathers like murky fog around her?

It’s a good read. A little patchy in construction. A single-day journal alternates with the story of the move, the Luxembourg events, Kate’s memories of CIA assignments, and a lot of introspection. The single day takes place in Paris, where the Moores have moved after things unravel in Luxembourg, and provides the resolution to the plot. Eventually. Meanwhile, the layering of people, places and deceptions can be tricky to keep straight. Kate’s contempt for the mommy-role she sought and then finds to be a rough fit isn’t wholly credible. She is a hyper-intelligent woman who doesn’t play as clueless about how life works or what to expect. She adores her kids but she tires of them quickly. She’s in love with her husband and she trails him and searches his things. Everyone is really someone else. Kate misses conspicuous clues that the reader will catch immediately. As for spy thriller, maybe this is the way the CIA works—and maybe not—John le Carré it isn’t and I thought the set-ups were too simple and transparent. But it’s always nice to have a tough, smart heroine running the show so The Expats gets an overall thumbs-up.

The Expats: A Novel   Chris Pavone | Crown  2012