Where’s the gold?

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

CURIOUS MINDS. By Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton. Read by Lorelei King. Random House Audio. 7 hours; 6 CDs. $47. Also available in print from Bantam Books.

knightmoonFor just plain fun, I adore Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, and I’ve also enjoyed some of Evanovich’s forays into other series, sometimes with a co-author.

As of now, I have a new favorite for Evanovich’s No. 2 series (given that Stephanie Plum will never lose her place as No. 1 in my heart): the Knight-Moon novels.

The pair, Emerson Knight and Riley Moon, have their action-packed, hilarious debut in Curious Minds, Evanovich’s collaboration with Phoef Sutton, an Emmy-winning TV writer and author who teamed with her earlier on Wicked Charms, a Lizzy and Diesel adventure.

Riley grew up as a country girl in Texas, the daughter of a sheriff. Her ambitions, however, took her far away from home, and now equipped with degrees in business and law from Harvard, she’s settling in to her new job at the powerful banking firm of Blane-Grunwald in Washington.

Her fast track to success takes a wildly unexpected detour, however, when the bank sends her to babysit Emerson Knight, an extremely eccentric young man who, upon the death of his father, has become also extremely wealthy. Blane-Grunwald wants to continue caring for his wealth.

When she makes a personal-banker call on Emerson at his mansion on the edge of Rock Creek Park, Riley discovers that he does not want to hear her carefully rehearsed platitudes. Really, he doesn’t want to deal with her at all. But since she’s there, he orders her to take him to the bank so that he can see his gold.

Yes, gold. Part of the wealth Emerson has inherited includes gold bars, and he has become suspicious that there might be a problem with his gold – not to mention everyone else’s gold. Emerson comes to believe there’s a diabolical plot in the works that could disrupt the world’s economies and give someone way too much power.

Riley is initially assigned to keep an eye on Emerson, but she soon finds herself in the thick of whatever it is he’s doing, in fear not only for her job but also for her life. Their investigations take them from Washington to New York City and eventually to Area 51 in the Nevada desert. They run afoul of some very high-level folks.

Emerson is delightfully quirky – a good-looking (of course) nerd with unexpected talents, whose utter lack of and disregard for social skills make him all the more endearing. Despite her Harvard degrees, Riley often sounds a little gee-whiz, a lot, come to think of it, like Stephanie Plum, but that’s OK. She is, after all, not far removed from her rural Texas childhood, and, besides, who doesn’t love Stephanie Plum?

This book is light entertainment of a high order. It’s funny, fast-moving, surprising and charming. There develops, of course, a spark of attraction between Riley and Emerson as they spend more time together in life-threatening situations, but much is left for the future.

Lorelei King does her usual A-plus job of reading this romp, with just the right amount of irony in her voice.


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In a strange land

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

DODGERS. By Bill Beverly. Read by J.D. Jackson. Random House Audio. 10 ½ hours; 9 CDs. $40. Also available in print from Crown.

dodgersI’m ashamed to admit that, after having received the review copy I had requested of Bill Beverly’s unforgettable new book, I dragged my heels about listening to Dodgers. Other books, books with characters and stories with whom I could more easily identify, or books that promised to transport me to a world I’d like to inhabit for a time, were more enticing. After all, the first paragraph of the description on the back of Dodgers told me that the protagonist is a 15-year-old, seasoned gang member from South Central L.A. who is sent to Wisconsin to murder a key witness in a case against his uncle, Fin. What could I find to identify with in that story?

The answer to that question is; humanity. And the way that Beverly makes us realize that humanity, to care about this boy, is a major part of his genius as a writer. East, the 15-year-old who’s earned his stripes “standing yard” – running a crew that watches a drug house – quickly becomes a boy who would never ask for but wins our compassion. He cares about his mother, who surely seems worthless to anybody else. He is haunted by the face of a girl whose death he witnessed. He has his own ideas of right and wrong, ideas that he re-examines more often than most of us do. Despite difficult living conditions, he tries to be neat and tidy. And despite having seen and perpetrated more horrors than most of us will know in a lifetime, he’s obviously a child, however much he might be trying to be a man.

East doesn’t set out on his murderous mission alone. No, his uncle sends him with a crew: his 13-year-old half-brother, Ty, who’s violent and a lot more knowledgeable than East; Walter, an overweight boy who’s surprisingly gentle and intelligent; and Michael Wilson, who’s been to college and thinks he knows more than he does.

The four are sent out in a nondescript but reliable vehicle, with what should be sufficient cash and fake IDs. The title comes from the Dodgers T-shirts they wear by way of disguise. They are instructed to leave their cell phones and ATM cards in LA. They have instructions about how to obtain guns when they get closer to their target.

The way the story develops, it’s entirely credible that these boys might be sent to do such a serious job. Nobody knows them. They won’t arouse suspicions. The uncle has a special place in his heart for East. And they generally follow orders, at least when they come from Fin.

The journey itself is an eye-opening story, with more than a little humor. The boys’ world is LA. They know little more about the Midwest than they do about France, or Japan, orTimbuktu. They look upon the world of white people warily and curiously. And, of course, they have their disagreements. They haven’t been on the road long when Michael Wilson decides they need to have the Las Vegas experience, with nearly disastrous results.

Things go wrong. Obtaining the guns isn’t as easy as it was supposed to be. Finding phone booths is a pain. And then things go very wrong.

Before long, East finds himself alone, cold, hungry and almost without resources as the Midwestern winter is setting in. As he travels – eventually, on foot – through the alien countryside, East is able to see that even white people in America’s heartland may have difficult lives. The drug houses where he worked in LA are called “the Boxes,” and East uses old cardboard boxes to make his own place to sleep. Yet he can also see that struggling people who live in trailers or shabby houses are in boxes of their own. He’s not dealing in symbols, just making sense of what he sees.

Beverly’s subtle irony deepens when East finds a refuge working at a paintball range. When this boy who’s fired guns with real ammunition in dead seriousness first stumbles upon the big old building where grown men play games, he can’t fathom what he’s seeing.

As East settles in to life at the range, you almost think Beverly is going to deliver an improbably neat, happy ending – and, by now pulling for East against great odds, you hope he does. Life isn’t quite that easy, however, but Beverly does give East and the reader hope that, even when things are tough, people can make choices and have some say about who they are and what sort of world they live in.

Beautifully and convincingly written, this quickly becomes a riveting book. J.B. Jackson’s reading does it credit in the audio version.

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Murder – or is it? – in WWII New York

Many newspaper reporters dream of one day writing a novel. Dan Fesperman is living the dream – he just published No. 10. Paul O’Connor isn’t a big fan of mysteries, but he found this one quite entertaining.

Reviewed by Paul T. O’Connor

THE LETTER WRITER. By Dan Fesperman. Knopf. 372 pages. $26.95

letterwriter-220The last few months hadn’t been good for Woodrow Cain when he arrived in New York City in February 1942.

Some undisclosed event had precipitated his leaving a small North Carolina town, where he was a detective, and heading north, leaving his family behind. And as he steps off the train, he learns that a luxury cruise liner, in the harbor to be retrofitted for carrying troops, is on fire, quite possibly an act of sabotage by German agents.

Things aren’t much better two months later when, after passing the sergeant’s exam, he encounters hostile colleagues in his local precinct. They don’t like him because he’s Southern and the new man who just leapfrogged many of them on the promotion list. Word is that someone important pulled strings to get him the job.

When assigned to investigate a corpse washed ashore on the New York side of the Hudson River, he alienates a pair of patrol officers. But it is that corpse that leads him to Danziger, an Eastern European immigrant fluent in multiple languages who supports himself by translating, writing and reading letters for his immigrant neighbors and who appears to know much the detective will need to learn.

With the Cain-Danziger alliance, Dan Fesperman sets us up for a series of mysteries: Who killed the man in the river? Why is Cain in New York, and what happened back in North Carolina? Who is Danziger, and what is his past? Which New York cops and prosecutors are crooked, if any? How could one guy get himself into so much hot water so fast?

Full disclosure. I’ve known Dan Fesperman since the early 1980s when he and I were reporters in Raleigh, he for The Charlotte News. I had a beer with him in Baltimore a few weeks ago, and he told me he’d spent a year living in New York City researching this novel.

Here’s what he did with that research. He brought together a series of historical events from 1942, including historical characters from the time, and snaked a murder mystery between them. So, while Woodrow Cain is a fictional character, most of the others are either true historical figures or fictional characters built from a historical basis. And this particular case of homicide might be fictional, but murder was fairly common in the city at the time.

And what are those historical events? To answer that would spoil the suspense because, for the unaware, the historical events are as much a mystery here as is the identity of the murderer, if there is a murderer. I’m not saying. Fesperman’s afterword goes into detail on how he pieced it all together.

This is Fesperman’s 10th novel. We reviewed The Warlord’s Son a few years back here at Briar Patch Books and liked it. But this is better. These characters are fuller, more complex, the mystery is more confounding. He spent that year well, learning much about the 1942 layout of the city, the whereabouts of commercial spots, city landmarks and bad guy hangouts.

I don’t read many mysteries, or, for that matter, much popular fiction. But I suspect even crime novel aficionados will find much to enjoy in The Letter Writer.

  • Paul T. O’Connor, contributing editor, is a university lecturer who is available for freelance writing assignments. Contact him at ocolumn@gmail.com.








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Danger lurks in gritty Texas

Here’s a review of a second novel by a fellow newspaper veteran who is a transplant to North Carolina. The review, now with a couple of modifications, first ran in the Greensboro News & Record.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

WINNING TEXAS. By Nancy Stancill. Black Rose Writing. 226 pages. $16.95, paperback.

In real world time, it’s been two years since Nancy Stancill’s first thriller, “Saving Texas,” appeared on the scene. But in book time, it’s been four years, and Stancill’s heroine, Annie Price, has faced changes and setbacks.

As Stancill’s new book, “Winning Texas,” opens, the newspaper business is in even worse straits than it was before. Annie is working as an assistant metro editor because her beloved job as an investigative reporter has been eliminated.  The newspaper is so short on staff, however, that she sometimes gets to help cover a story, an opportunity she relishes. Like everyone else on the staff, she lives with the constant threat of being “downsized,” a prospect that appears more imminent as the story progresses.

Her personal life is not faring much better.  As the previous book came to its dramatic conclusion, her longtime relationship and her newer romantic interest both ran into major problems. At 40, Annie is wary about getting involved with someone new or picking up where she left off with anyone from her past. But sometimes she’s tempted.

In the greater world, many things remain much the same, however. Houston, where Annie works for the only daily newspaper, is still a gritty city, And Annie and the reporters who answer to her often see the worst it has to offer – an unidentified body in the ship channel, topless clubs that push the limits of lax laws, even human trafficking. All of Texas, really, is still a rough, sometimes violent place. Annie was instrumental in helping to thwart the secessionist movement four years earlier, but there are signs that its ringleaders have not given up their goals, and that they are still dangerous.

Meanwhile, the German Texas movement is gaining momentum. The idea is to enhance and capitalize on the strong German heritage in the Texas hill country in an effort to draw tourists and stimulate the economy. As the story progresses, it becomes evident that the secessionists take a dim view of the German Texas movement and pose a threat to its members. Annie and one of her reporters are at a German Texas fundraiser when the threat becomes all too real.

Two dramatic murders propel the action, and one hits very close to home: A young reporter who works with Annie is killed in the parking lot of a strip club he’s investigating.

Stancill, who left a real-world investigative reporting job in Houston to move to Charlotte with her husband, has written a sequel to her first thriller that provides a fast-moving plot and plenty of action. She writes in third person, shifting the point of view among various leading characters.

This second book shows some maturity as a writer: The dialogue is more believable, and Annie is a little more discriminating in her romantic dealings with men.  Stancill continues to paint a realistic, if depressing, picture of the state of the newspaper industry, and she doesn’t hesitate to portray some of the contemporary problems and tensions in the state of Texas.

“Winning Texas” also has fewer editing lapses than the first book, although there is a confusing passage in which Sunday morning somehow becomes Saturday morning.

As she did at the end of “Saving Texas,” Stancill leaves us with the strong suggestion that Annie Price has more adventures ahead of her in another book in the Texas series. It would be interesting if, now that she lives in North Carolina, Stancill would try her hand at a thriller that delves into the darker side of this state. Maybe if Annie is downsized in Houston, she’ll find a new job at a newspaper in Charlotte or, say, Greensboro.

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A (very different) tale of Vietnam

Long before he was a public school teacher and principal, my husband, Lloyd Brinson, was a Marine officer who served in Vietnam. Who would have thought he’d find so much of value in a children’s novel set in contemporary times in that country?

Reviewed by Lloyd Brinson

LISTEN, SLOWLY. By Thanhha Lai. HarperCollins. 272 pages. $16.99, hardcover; $6.99, paperback.

ListenA fourth-grade boy introduced me to Thanhha Lai’s finely crafted writing. I was in an elementary school to mentor another student, who, that day, did not want any mentoring during silent reading time. I wandered a few rows until I saw this boy reading what appeared to be poetry. NO WAY… not this boy, a full blooded, pure American through and through male homo sapiens. I leaned down to ask him quietly: “What’s your book about?”

The boy used a finger to mark his place on the page and took about 10 seconds to think and whisper, almost reverently: “It’s about the struggles of people.” He immediately returned to his reading of Lai’s brilliant verse novel Inside Out & Back Again. I ordered a copy that night. I have underlined, dog-eared and written in the margins of that intense tale of the plight of Vietnamese refugees as sensed through the eyes, ears, nose, hands and feet of a 10-year-old girl born in Saigon, South Vietnam, now Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, as she and her family escaped and settled in the United States.

My new copy of Listen, Slowly, the tale of a California-born 12-year-old daughter of Vietnamese refugees and her summer in Vietnam is underlined, dog-eared, etc., maybe even more than Inside Out… Like the earlier book, this novel is labeled a children’s book, for ages 8-12, but older readers will also find it rewarding. First published in 2015, Listen, Slowly was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book and a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of the Year.

Mia (at school and the beach) Mai (at home) is a thoroughly Laguna Beach girl and proud of it. She is tan, not yellow as is most of her family, and plans to get more sun than ever, now that she is old enough to ride the shuttle to nearby Anita Beach without an adult alongside. THIS should be the SUMMER OF HER LIFE, if all goes as planned. There is, as there should be, a love triangle, which she WILL manage at the beach. This is a smart, determined girl poised to make the California beach scene.

Mia/Mai does have the summer of her life, but that summer will be, very much against her will, in Vietnam with her grandmother and her father. She will endure a rite of passage few modern California tweens could imagine, much less survive, and she emerges as… well, you just have to read this tale….

Mai/Mia’s parents escaped the chaos of Vietnam as children in the 1970s, met in college and have lived the American Dream; both are successful professionals who specialize in giving back to people less fortunate. They refuse to tell her much about their childhood and early years in the USA; Mai/Mia explains: “… most of what I know about Vietnam comes from PBS, especially from the documentary The Fall of Saigon. Mom insisted I watch it so I’d understand – drumroll, please – my roots.”

This strong willed, intelligent girl loves and values her family and their traditions beyond description, an Asian cultural trait that Westerners do not understand, but she is bound and determined to be a California/American girl who just happens to have Vietnamese/American parents. She quit speaking Vietnamese early in grade school. Through the next years and through most of her summer travels, she pretends not to understand the language; purposely making herself as big a pain as possible, she requires an interpreter at every stopover to write translations of what is going on.

What is going on, the central focus of this story, reflects that singularly strong Asian tradition of family that makes our Western notion of family ties trivial. What is going on is also more about THE WAR, a war that still divides many of us half a century later. Mai/Mia gave up trying to find out about THE WAR from her family long ago. She is now piqued that she has been assigned to accompany her aging grandmother, Ba, on her quest to follow the last remaining lead to the fate of her husband, a Hanoi native who fled the Communists to fight for the southern army.

Mai/Mia’s father is also going to Vietnam, but, “Dr. Do-Gooder shriveled me with facts… (about) the kids with hand burns… the kids with holes in the roofs of their mouths…” and other stricken children who won last year’s village lottery to be treated this summer by Dr. Do-Gooder. He can’t let those kids down; his wife, a high-powered prosecutor, has a trial approaching that has something to do with battered women. She can’t let those women down….

And Mai (it’s one name, now that she’s in Ba’s homeland) can’t let her family, and especially her revered grandmother, down either.

Thanhha Lai uses a California tween’s language and perspective to portray vividly the panorama that is Vietnam – the capricious weather, the incredible terrain, the lovely villages and villagers, the plant and animal life and how that tween became a part of all this – and allows the reader to be pulled into the middle of it.

Mai marvels at the villagers’ conservation of resources while living within nature’s limits. As for their diets: “This being the land of perfectly portioned eaters, people nibble on one square per day, if that much. So many good habits in one population are really annoying.”

She has encounters (as everyone does in Vietnam) with leeches, frogs and the insects, especially MOSQUITOES (caps mine): “Hundreds of them, aiming for me with baby needles, stabbing, stabbing. They’re hairy, black, superbuzzy, and I swear the size of flies, which are also everywhere but at least they don’t sting.”

Lai once again plays with her two languages, sometimes at levels far beyond Mai’s age. Oh, I forgot to mention, her mother requires Mai to learn one SAT word a day, even while dodging Saigon traffic and recovering from falling into a putrid lake.

As their incredible journey nears an end, Mai reflects upon what she has experienced and decides to stop fretting over her best California friend and HIM, the third angle of her love triangle, which, “like so many other triangles, will eventually solve itself and life goes on.” She then checks the smart phone her mother hid in her luggage to discover a Friend request from HIM.

“I take back every mature, philosophical thought I just had about triangles,” she says, beginning to have second thoughts about facing the last challenge of the summer. Her original obligation to her Ba is done and over. She could make a strong case to hop a flight back to finish this summer with a flourish in California, but a new close friend here in Vietnam could really use her help for a couple of weeks. Only Mai can do the job….

You’re going to love this book.


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Portrait of the artist as a young resistance fighter

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

A COUNTRY ROAD, A TREE. By Jo Baker. Read by David Rintoul. Random House Audio. 10 ½ hours; 9 CDS. $40. Also available in print from Knopf.

Ah, what a heady thing to be an aspiring young writer in Paris – until the Nazis come countrygoose-stepping in. In her new novel, A Country Road, a Tree, Jo Baker vividly brings to life the horrors of the German occupation of France in World War II.

Baker is the British author who gave us Longbourn, a delightful retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the viewpoint of the downstairs servants. Her new novel is a triumph of imagination applied to real, historical events and specifically to the effects living in a world of horrors had on one sensitive, introspective and brilliant young man.

Although she does not tell us his identity in the main part of the novel, the young man Baker is writing about is Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright and poet. If reading the book prompts you, as it did me, to do some research, you will see that Baker’s fictional account closely follows Beckett’s real-life story.

This book is intensely personal, showing us the impact of the historical events on this young man who would survive and become a considerable literary presence. With him, we see the Nazis assert control over Paris. Through his eyes, we see what it is like to, somewhat hesitatingly, join the resistance, and to live with constant fear for himself and his friends and associates.

Eventually, the young man and his girlfriend, Suzanne, must flee Paris and seek refuge elsewhere. This is not so much a story of wartime resistance as it is a story of how a creative soul who wants to be a writer deals with a world gone mad, and how those experiences help mold the writer he eventually becomes.

The book starts off slowly, establishing the young man’s sense of inadequacies and following him as he decides to return to Paris even though, with war on the horizon, he would be safer staying with family in Ireland. In the audio version, David Rintoul’s reading helps to draw the listener into the increasingly powerful story.

Baker describes the young man’s relationships with Suzanne and with other writers and expatriates in Paris, most notably James Joyce, whom Beckett admired greatly. She makes readers feel the hardships, the tedium and pain of long treks across rural France, the hunger brought on by food shortages, the fear of discovery and death. Our young man does not regard himself as a hero, but rather seems surprised whenever he finds himself taking part in the resistance. He finds himself thinking mostly about survival; writing would be a luxury.

Those who are familiar with Beckett’s works will, no doubt, find references and allusions in the novel in addition to its title, which applies to the setting of his famous play “Waiting for Godot” as well as a scene in the novel. But those of us who have only a passing acquaintance with his plays and poems can also be mesmerized by this story of how a creative person dealt with the immediate horrors of war while also processing them into images, thoughts and memories that would live on in his work.

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Channeling Robert B. Parker

A new writer is keeping an old favorite series alive, and Bob Moyer thinks that’s quite OK.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Robert B. Parker’s SLOW BURN: A Spenser Novel. By Ace Atkins. Putnam. 304 pages. $27.

slowburnRobert B. Parker may have passed from this mortal coil, but Spenser, his iconic Boston P.I., still packs a pistol under his tailored jacket and a passion for his sweetheart that makes it feel: “…like Gene Krupa was practicing” in his chest.

Parker’s estate asked Ace Atkins, no slouch as a series writer himself, to take over the series. In five novels, he’s done more than just continue the series; he channels Parker in so many ways. Most Spenser fans will agree Atkins has achieved an uncanny continuity; his voice doesn’t disturb the characters we carry around in our brains after dozens of Parker novels. The great banter still pours across the pages.

Spenser and his sidekick Hawk are still the “…Martin and Lewis of beating the crap out of people.”  His apprentice, the Indian Z, still plays kemo sabe to Spenser’s Lone Ranger, and his main squeeze Susan is by his side. Or under him. Or on top. You get the picture. Actually, you don’t get the picture, because, like Parker, Atkins invites you into the banter, but not the bedroom for any erotic escapades. Pearl the dog can still catch a piece of donut in mid-air, and no donut within arm’s reach is safe around Spenser — especially a maple bacon one. Bellson and Quirk the cops still cooperate begrudgingly with Spenser, and the bad guys still have it out for him.

Now that he’s established how things can stay the same, however, Atkins sets us up here for some change in the future. The plot is not a particular page-turner; Spenser takes on an arson case as a favor to a firefighter friend. That case leads to a possible connection to a series of set fires, and we know early on whodunit. We are privy to the whodunit’s thoughts, so it’s a slow reveal to how Spenser will catch the guys. Meanwhile, Bellson gets promoted, Quirk gets a new female captain, Z may be moving to the West Coast, and Spenser suffers a personal loss that forces him into a major decision — which won’t happen until the next book. Neither will the rematch with the gangster’s henchman who fights Spenser to a standstill. Spenser is eagerly awaiting that moment.

So are Spenser’s fan. “Yeehaw,” as he would say.

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Keeping the seas safe in a perilous world

Here’s another reviewing collaboration with my U.S. Navy officer son, currently assigned to the U.S. Naval Academy as an instructor in seamanship and navigation. Although the two of us approach this book from markedly different backgrounds, we both heartily enjoyed it. That statement in itself is quite a commendation.

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson and Lt. Samuel F. Brinson

SYREN’S SONG. By Claude Berube. Naval Institute Press. 219 pages. $26.95.

syrens_song_020316Connor Stark is back in fine form in Claude Berube’s second military thriller, and, we’re happy to report, so is Damien Golzari, his nemesis turned ally from the first book in the series, The Aden Effect.

Syren’s Song takes up not long after the first book closes. Stark, a former officer who was dishonorably discharged from the Navy for reasons that remain mostly mysterious, is back at work at his private maritime security company in Scotland, when, once again, international events call him into action.

The Tamil Tigers have re-emerged with a vengeance, launching a devastating attack on the Sri Lankan navy. The Sri Lankan government issues Stark a letter of marque (yes, more or less licensing someone to do what otherwise would be piracy, as in the storied olden days), hoping he can stop the terrorists and restore order.

The U.S. Navy gets involved, too, and Berube also brings back some of the personnel we met in the first book. As in the first book, he puts his experience in the Navy, at the Naval Academy and in Naval Intelligence to good use in his fiction.

One of the many strengths of Berube’s novels is that, even though the books are relatively short, he manages to weave in a wealth of material that goes beyond the surface. Readers increasingly see the complexities of the main characters, and many of the minor characters have considerable depth as well. No one is even close to a super hero; everyone has been knocked back by life in one way or another, and we admire Stark and Golzari all the more for the way they have pulled themselves together and continued to serve as best they can, to work for what they believe is right. Even Berube’s portrayal of the U.S. Navy is realistic, showing that there are good officers and there are also some who probably should be doing something else.

Golzari, a diplomatic security special agent, is in the area investigating the murder of a fellow agent, which at first would seem to be unrelated to Stark’s mission. Making things even more interesting, Melanie Arden, a veteran journalist who turns out to be Golzari’s ex-wife, is in the jungle trying to track down a story on the Sea Tigers’ mining operations and exploitation of local people, including children.

The development of recurring characters and the questions of right and wrong, justice and fairness, that they face, enrich the book. But don’t think for a minute that Berube skimps on tension and intrigue. This book is tautly plotted, with enough action to satisfy any fan of military thrillers.

While some of that action is on the high seas, Berube also takes us this time into the jungles for some different challenges and adventures. And there’s a lot of cutting-edge technology as well. The Sea Tigers have a devastating new weapon with horrifying potential. Berube describes maritime warfare and weapons that haven’t actually been put into use, and he does so in a way that’s both plausible and frightening. It’s interesting, too, that when Berube has the U.S. Navy lend warships to the Sri Lankans, they are the controversial new littoral combat ships – and, the fate of these LCSs in his story suggests he’s among those concerned about possible flaws.

(Those fans who aren’t familiar with all the Navy acronyms will be pleased to see that Berube provides a handy list this time.)

Syren’s Song is a fine book, one that makes Berube’s growing number of fans eager for the next Connor Stark adventure. Readers will look forward to another plot that’s intricate yet understandable, to plenty of action, and to spending more time with these increasingly intriguing characters. It is, however, time that Ensign Bobby Fisk becomes a LTJG. He’s proved himself.

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One war ends, another simmers

Bob Moyer takes a look at the latest book in a series about a detective in Germany during the World War II era.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

THE OTHER SIDE OF SILENCE: A Bernie Gunther Novel. By Philip Kerr. Putnam. 400 pages. $27.

The-Other-Side-of-Silence-e1458288166948Some things change. In this accomplished series about the moral and physical dilemma of German detective Bernie Gunther during World War II, the war is finally over.

Bernie isn’t in Germany; Bernie is in France, and Bernie isn’t Bernie anymore. He’s Walter Wolf, the concierge at the Grand Hotel du Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat on the Riviera. His duties don’t approach the life-or-death dilemmas he faced in the German army. He jokes that his sleuthing is reduced to peeking through a keyhole to check if that blonde is really a blonde (most of them aren’t he claims) and answer stupid questions from rich guests, with a smile. He plays bridge, too, and comes to be included in the circle of W. Somerset Maugham, the legendary writer who has an estate nearby. No royalty involved, but a lot of queens, a kind of company Bernie isn’t comfortable with.

Some things, however, never change. Bernie ends up in the middle once again. Maugham blackmails Bernie into assisting him because he is being blackmailed, by someone from Bernie’s past. That man, one Harold Heinz Hennig, told Maugham about Bernie. During the war, Hennig practiced his trade for the benefit of his Gestapo superiors, and to the demise of two people close to Bernie in Konigsberg. Now, he has compromising pictures of Maugham, once an English spy, and some companions cavorting in the nude. That’s just a teaser, however. Hennig soon pulls out the big prize, a tape in which famous English spies who defected to Russia name names. Bernie is the messenger, and, as always, people try to kill the messenger.

True to form, Bernie gets hooked by a “fish.”  That’s gay slang here for a woman, who disappoints Bernie (so what’s new?), and almost gets him killed in a script put together by the Russians to fool the British. Bernie, finding himself mixed up with some bad actors, puts on a bravura performance, improvising with the few facts he has. It’s all just foreplay for the Cold War that’s heating up, and Bernie comes out of it in one piece.

At the end of the book, he stands at his desk, waiting – for the next guest, and for his next adventure, coming out next year.

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Saucy Jack strikes again

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

LOST AND GONE FOREVER. By Alex Grecian. Read by John Curless. Books on Tape. 9 CDs; 10 ½ hours.

LostWhen reviewing the newest book in a series, I usually try to judge whether someone who hasn’t read all the earlier entries will understand and appreciate the new one. This time, I really did approach Lost and Gone Forever with very little background. I had read one of Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard Murder Squad books, The Black Country, No. 2. But, unlike in the other books, Jack the Ripper does not figure prominently in that one.

I can report that while not having read the earlier books will put the reader/listener at something of a disadvantage, the disadvantage is not insurmountable. There was a moment while listening to Disc 1 that I almost gave up, both because I lacked a lot of the history and because the story begins in a way that is dark, even grim. But before I could hit the “eject” button, I was so engrossed in what was happening that I forgot I’d ever had such a notion.

My solution to the problem of not having read most of the previous four books in the Scotland Yard Murder Squad series is now simple: Having enjoyed No. 5, I hope to do the same with the earlier ones. Those who are already fans of the series won’t need to read reviews; they need only to know there’s a new book for their reading pleasure.

This is a historical book as well as a thriller, and Grecian does a superb job of drawing the reader into the world of Victorian England, particularly the darker side of that world. The murder squad, hampered by a shortage of resources and manpower, has been unable to stop the serial killer known as Jack. No matter what happens, Jack seems to reappear and resume his murderous ways. He’s a clever and crafty villain as well as a ruthless one.

As this book opens, Walter Day, one of the murder squad detectives, has been missing for a year. Some rumors have it that Jack the Ripper might be involved in Day’s disappearance, although no one has been able to determine the truth of the matter, or even why Jack might want Day. Day’s wife has been struggling to keep their family going.

Nevil Hammersmith, Day’s friend and protégé, has lost his job with the squad because he is too headstrong. Hammersmith has set up a detective agency, but the only case he pursues is that of his missing mentor. He is determined to find Walter Day.

Then various people begin reporting that they have seen someone who greatly resembles Day in London. If Day has really returned, why doesn’t he get in touch with his wife, or Hammersmith or the Murder Squad? As viewpoints shift, we sometimes see matters through Day’s eyes, and as he gradually realizes what has happened and is happening, readers also gain more understanding.

Meanwhile, a husband-wife team of assassins for hire arrives in London with a mysterious mission. The more we learn about them, the more they seem as frightening as Jack himself. And there are the Karstphanomen, members of a secret society of prominent Londoners that operates outside normal legal channels.

Grecian does a fine job of depicting the gritty side of 1891 London. He also creates characters with considerable depth, women as well as men. Both those on the side of law and order and the villains in this book are all the more fascinating because of their complexities – and sometimes we wonder who falls into which category.

This is a literate, thought-provoking and sometimes hair-raising thriller. John Curless’ reading enhances the already dark atmosphere.




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