Tuesday, July 23, 2019

James Bond, Move Over for Bianca St. Ives, from Karen Robards

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


The trouble with being a sort of Wonder Woman is, once people know you exist, they either want to force you to do their jobs, or kill you. Or both.

Wonder Woman. Nancy Pelosi. Michelle Obama. Although Americans haven’t yet elected a woman as President, there’s a clear cultural curiosity about what a strong and powerful yet honest and enjoyable woman leader might be like.

Into this vacuum has stepped Karen Robards, taking the espionage thriller into the terrain of a bioengineered super-strong female lead: the determined and yet oddly vulnerable Bianca St. Ives. Aware that she’s a genetically modified creation of a government researc lab, and well past her due date for termination and destruction, Bianca’s hiding out in The Fifth Doctrine as a private security entrepreneur in Savannah, Georgia, assisted by just a couple of people she trusts—but who don’t know her dark secret. Robards ramps the threat level to red as Bianca confronts the only international spy who’s come close to penetrating her defenses (in every sense). And to escape the pressures that Colin Rogan’s immediately applying, Bianca may lose her business, her friends … and her privacy.

Because the trouble with being a sort of Wonder Woman is, once people know you exist, they either want to force you to do their jobs, or kill you. Or both.

Bianca’s determination to protect her allies leads her to contemplate just disappearing. But (as revealed in the two previous books in this series, The Ultimatum and The Moscow Deception) Bianca already knows that “they found her in Macau, they’d found her Moscow, and now they’d found her in Savannah.” While she works to revamp her own defenses, she’ll have to tackle Rogan’s mission for her, one that requires her to transform into another woman who’s already an international operative.

Rogan directs her, “By the time we leave for the airport in the morning, you will be Lynette Holbrook and Operation Fifth Doctrine will be up and running.” What’s the name stand for? Rogan explains that the US military has five domains of war, and this one, the fifth, is information. “Kind of gives that whole ‘war of words’ thing a brand new meaning,” Rogan cracks.

Hot topics from today’s news cycle hiss and crackle in The Fifth Doctrine: Korean treachery. The spread of atomic weapons. Terrorist attacks and traitors motivated by money or bizarre loyalties.

Robards writes with fast scenes and the equivalent of a car chase every couple of chapters. Her special seasoning is a pulse-racing tide of attraction between Bianca St. Ives and Colin—balanced with logical mistrust, physical assertiveness, and a strand of growing respect between two people who would have liked to be colleagues instead of enemies. But could that ever happen in their world?

Series readers be warned, Bianca’s past includes more threats than Colin, and some of them are even closer to her heart. Brace for an exhilarating ride, and a finale that assures the series is far from over.

David Downing's Stand-Alone Thriller, in 1938 Germany

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


Retelling wartime history as spy fiction is Downing’s deeply grounded path; pointing out the power of love and family within it, however, is his aria.

The Cold War? History. The Red Menace? A comic-book phrase tossed around in period films. World-makers struggling to turn the globe into a folllw-up from the Russian revolution of 1917? Ridiculous.

Except, as the “Mueller Report” reveals, there is an ongoing and powerful effort of the Great Powers of the world to exert political will on each other, even if it’s just to distract leaders and hamper economies. David Downing’s series of haunting mysteries set in Berlin (the John Russell series) led to the Jack McColl series, thrillers positioned at the start of the First World War. With his 2019 “stand-alone” espionage adventure, Diary of a Dead Man on Leave, Downing puffs on what now seem like the long-dormant embers of the Communist Party—but they were far from dormant as Germany positioned itself to invade its neighbors in 1938.

Unlike his two earlier series, Downing does not center the emotion of Diary of a Dead Man on Leave on a couple falling in love or struggling to maintain a relationship through political upheaval. Instead, he fingers the tenderness that can grow unexpectedly between an isolated worker for a better world, and a child who needs his counsel and support.

To Josef Hoffman, struggling on behalf of Russia’s Kremlin to recruit a Communist cell within Nazi Germany five years after Adolf Hitler has seized control, the dream of a worker-led world with fairness and justice is worth every sacrifice. He’s already handled a hidden life in distant Argentina, among displaced Germans there. Now, infiltrating cautiously among the railroad men in Hamm, he knows his chances of a misstep are high … and his death unpredictably close. To quote a 1919 leader from the Soviet Union, “we Communists are all dead men on leave”—that is, only (at best) experiencing a brief respite from self-sacrifice at every level. Downing applies the quotation as a meme for the Communist agents working outside the Soviet Union.

But for a dead man, Josef has a lot of heart. Hiding out in a boardinghouse where the landlady struggles to raise her son safely amid men who want to take over her life and her child’s, Josef’s first intention is to do no harm: Be kind toward young Walter but insulate him from politics.

Yet he fails at this, repeatedly, as when the youngster asks his help on an assignment to provide proof of racial superiority of Nordic people in terms of speech and singing. “ ‘It can’t be true, can it?’ Walter asked doubtfully after he’d finished reading the passage. No, it couldn’t, I thought, but that’s what they rely on—that smidgen of doubt. Anyone who’d listened to a Negro gospel choir or an Italian opera diva would know such ideas for the rubbish they were, but few had been so lucky, especially in a place like Hamm.”

Can Josef answer Walter honestly, while at the same time teaching the youngster enough to protect him in a brutally propagandistic school system and devouring army? What about the rest of Walter’s family—the mother, the brother, the grandfather?

The dangers and sacrifices of Josef’s live create a dramatic and piercing counterpoint to the usual story of espionage. In Downing’s hands, they also create a call to action for our time. But set that aside and absorb the story instead. Retelling wartime history as spy fiction is Downing’s deeply grounded path; pointing out the power of love and family within it, however, is his aria.

Provocative and Entertaining Dystopian Novel: EARLY RISER from Jasper Fforde

[Originally published in the New York Journal of Books]


Taking Early Riser into the summer reading stack will be surprisingly refreshing. Even though it arrives with both love, and a shiver of foreboding.

Dystopian fiction has become a necessary aspect to our politically unsettled and climate-challenged lives, and there’s a new longing for Joseph Campbell’s heroic figures to show us how to survive with honor and preserve a thriving planet.

As Jaspar Fforde leaps into the genre, an adult level of frustration and chaos appears: Early Riser, unlike Fforde’s long series of literary spoofs, lifts its curtain on despair and death, moderated by the equivalent of Big Pharma. Charlie Worthing, a novice “winter consul” allowed to stay awake for the frigid months of the new form of winter—while most people lie in a drug-induced sleep to save energy—seeks the source of viral dreams that are infecting sleepers and the awake. For Charlie, the dreams overlap the strange things going on around him: manipulations by two sides of the culture clash, and provoked disappearances of those who might be able to object.

What makes Early Riser unforgettable, though, is not the particular form of dystopia Fforde displays, but the affection and loyalty that Charlie and some of his new acquaintances turn into effective action against pharmaceutical giant HiberTech. Even as Charlie tackles his first assignment, taking a “soul-dead” individual named Mrs Tiffen to be parted out and recycled, the small details of humanity catch at him like “stick-tights” caught walking across a field of seeding plants: “Mrs Tiffen could play the bouzouki,” he notes at the opening of the book. “Not well, and only one tune: ‘Help Yourself’ by Tom Jones.  … She and I had not exchanged an intelligent word since we met five hours before, and the reason was readily explained: Mrs Tiffen was dead, and had been for several years.”

As Charlie confronts his first wakeful winter—where a mild day is around minus forty degrees—he also notes how hard he finds it to believe that a person who can play the bouzouki is no longer a person. Alive. Loving.

Affection becomes Charlie’s own melted area. His Morphenox-twisted dreams and the viral psychopathy infusing the people he meets mingle with an artifical affair he’s been dragged into—the highly attractive (but crazy?) Birgitta needs him to pretend to adore her. “‘The best relationships always begin like a bad rom-com in my experience. I’ll find a tartan travel rug and a picnic set for the Sno-Trac,’ she added, now quite enthused by the whole idea.”

Fforde sweeps the action forward briskly, unafraid of mythologizing as he goes along, complete with Villains with a capital V. He conflates Winter with the possibility of global evil, so that Charlie admits, “The citizenry didn’t know or care what the Consuls did during the cold to keep them safe, they just wanted to wake alive in the Spring, same as always. For many people, the Winter didn’t really exist except in an abstract sort of way, and by consequence, neither did we.”

The book couldn’t be further from a “beach book” in its details, yet the cover catches a bit of the viral dreaming from the story and offers a beach scene (sprinkled with snow). It’s a good hint for this season: Taking Early Riser into the summer reading stack will be surprisingly refreshing. Even though it arrives with both love, and a shiver of foreboding.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fresh Espionage Fiction Set in 1992 Warsaw: Timothy Jay Smith, THE FOURTH COURIER

Suddenly 1992 and the end of the Soviet bloc and Communist era are practically historical fiction -- more than 25 years ago. In Timothy Jay Smith's fast-moving spy novel THE FOURTH COURIER, that's a moment fresh with possibilities: not just for nations but for an aging Russian who can't give up his dreams of ruling his own pocket of the world, even if it takes an atomic bomb to do so.

Brace for hot sex in surprising detail in this one, as FBI agent Jay Porter links up with a hot Polish airport worker with criminal connections, and Porter's CIA colleague Kurt Crawford turns the tables on the Russian general in a time when some sexual twists could mean far more danger and public shame than they do now.

The writing's sharp and quick, the plot laced with unusual twists. And the portrait of cash-starved, impoverished Poland at that point is poignant and salted with very human affection.

One of Jay's hosts reacts to provocation about the lack of freedom in Poland at that point:
"You cannot imagine the end of the war. The Germans were very thorough. Freedom. What good is freedom in this place at such a time? More than ninety percent of Warsaw was destroyed. We needed food, houses, protection—but not too much of any of them. If they thought we had enough of something, they took some of it away. They always wanted us to work harder. Their five-year plan was to have another five-year plan. It was enough to keep alive. I suppose it is different in America."

"It is different in America because we have freedom." ...

"Hopefully the women make more sense in America."
With flips of point of view, the reader soon knows far more than Jay about the flaws and cravings of the women on hand and the half-crazed Russian -- which ramps the tension effectively and leads to a book that's excellent summer reading. Smith's writing experience includes screenplays as well as novels, and his chapters are vibrant scenes with quick dialogue and swishes of the curtain. This won't quite reach the classics-of-espionage shelf, but it's definitely lively and surprising, a good addition to the genre. From Arcade, a division of Skyhorse Publishing.