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Archive for the ‘International mysteries’ Category

Butterfly Skin by Sergey Kuznetsov

This English translation of Sergey Kuznetsov’s early 2000’s psychological thriller, “Butterfly Skin” came out in September of 2014.  It was translated from the Russian by Andrew Bromfield.  The novel may appeal to those who liked “The Silence of the Lambs,” or Nesbo’s “The Snowman.”  I would characterize this novel as “Fifty Shades of Gray” meets “The Silence of the Lambs.”  Whether or not it is successful at holding the reader’s attention is partly a matter of taste.  For my taste, I find the novel flawed.

In order to keep me interested in reading such a graphically violent and sexually demeaning novel I must be immediately riveted by the protagonist and find some element of the serial killer’s personality or story so fascinating that it is worth it for me to slog through pages of very descriptive horror in order to see how the story develops between the protagonist and the killer.

I have read the first third of the book and so far the first person machinations of the protagonist and the killer leave me cold and unmoved.

The protagonist is a young female e-newspaper editor who decides to do a special series on a Moscow serial killer who leaves most of his victims, raped, skinned alive and with eyes cut out and jammed in the females’ more private orifices.  The bodies are left in places where they will be easily found.  As it happens the newspaper editor prefers her sex to be of the S&M variety.   So far, this plot and the extremely self-absorbed characters leave me uncaring about there fates and unwilling to spend more time wallowing in the book to see if something sparks my attention further on.

It happens sometimes that a book is just not my cup of tea.  I recognize, however, that this book may appeal to some readers.  It may appeal to some as a social commentary on contemporary Russian social issues.  It may also appeal to some for the horror and the rough sex.

I am neither recommending nor giving both thumbs down on “Butterfly Skin.”  For myself, I have simply chosen not to finish the book.

Liz Nichols

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Murder at Cirey by Cheryl Sawyer

Cheryl Sawyer’s new “A Victor Constant Investigation,” “Murder at Cirey” led me to look for more information about Voltaire’s 15 year residence at the Chateau de Cirey between 1734 and 1749.  The murder mystery is set during that period at the Chateau.  Voltaire and his paramour owner of the Chateau, Gabrielle Emilie de Breteuil, Marquise du Chatelet, are included as characters in the mystery.

Cheryl Sawyer is from New Zealand and currently lives in Australia.  She has been a publisher and writer in the South Pacific for twenty-one years.  She has written several historical novels.

Most of the other characters in this novel are fictional, including, Victor Constant, the persistent member of the military police brigade called the Marechaussee who was billeted in Chaumont in the Champaigne district.  He was sent to Cirey to investigate the reported murder of a military courier, Damien Moiron, who was found in the Cirey woods shot at close range.  Was the courier killed by a highwayman in an attempted robbery?  Was he the victim of jealousy because of dalliances with some of the ladies in the area?  Was he killed because of the military intelligence he carried? Is this a case of espionage gone wrong? Victor does not give up until he solves the crime and brings the guilty to justice, no matter the danger to himself.

I was captivated by this swashbuckler of a mystery from first page to last and found myself evaluating all the clues along with our hero.  I enjoyed getting to see France in 1735 through the eyes of Voltaire and the characters surrounding him.

Murder at Cirey” is Sawyer’s first crime novel.  Victor Constant should enjoy a good run as an historical crime-solver based on this first installment of the series.

Liz Nichols

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Smokescreen by Khaled Talib and The Washington Lawyer by Alan Topol

Smokescreen” and “The Washington Lawyer” are two new international and political thrillers sure to find their share of avid fans.  Both have wickedly devious and complex plots and smart, appealing protagonists.  “Smokescreen” was published in paperback in January 2014 and “The Washington Lawyer” comes out in March 2015.

The author of “Smokescreen,” Khalid Talib, like his protagonist, is a magazine writer living in Singapore.  His story centers around a plot by members of Israli intelligence to have their prime minister killed rather than to allow that prime minister to forge a new peace accord with the Palestinians.  The deed is to happen during a visit to Singapore and is to be blamed on the Eurasian society feature writer, Jet West, a twenty-something journalist who until now has worried more about his watch collection and his fashionable wardrobe than doing something up close and personal to stop an act of terrorism.  He is assisted in his effort to save his good name, his life and foil this assasination plot by a young Singaporean district attorney and the American ambassador to Singapore.  The one orchestrating the assassination plot is a high ranking Singaporean government official who doubles as an Israeli spy.  At first I did not find Jet very likable.  He starts out rather shallow and immature, but he very quickly grows up and develops a moral compass in order to save the day. I think many younger readers will identify with Jet; he is in many ways the international face of the millenial generation.

Shortly after I finished “Smokescreen” I began “The Washington Lawyer” by Allan Topol.  I have read and liked Topol’s thrillers in the past, and this one is no exception.  In fact, I find Topol’s new work chillingly realistic and plausible.  An American senator secures a favor from an old friend, a Washington attorney who is being considered for the position of Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  The Senator borrows the attorney’s beach house on the Caribbean island of Anguilla, but what he does not tell the lawyer is that he is taking his mistress with him to the beach house and not his wife.  The Senator also has a dirty little secret:  he has been passing defence secrets on to the Chinese for years.  When the mistress winds up dead– apparently through accidental drowning– the woman’s sister, Allison, decides to investigate.  She goes to Anguilla to investigate and quickly shoots holes in the police conclusion that her sister drown, but she finds everyone very closed-mouth about who she was with on the island or how she got to the location where she supposedly washed up on the beach.  The attorney gets caught between his conscience and his need to protect the truths that he finds out about his friend lest it taint his chances at the Supreme Court.  The plot is very sharp and edgy and so disturbingly realistic.

Of these two I personally liked “The Washington Lawyer” the most because I could see how easily decent and intelligent people can make one wrong decision that leads to ruin of many lives.  This book is particularly thought-provoking.  That being said, “Smokescreen” is a very good action thriller with colorful and memorable characters and an interesting plot that will appeal particularly to millenial readers.  Both are recommended.

Reviewed from supplied copies.

Liz Nichols

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The Job by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

The Job” is the latest in the collaboration between Evanovich and Goldberg in their “A Fox and O’Hare Novel” series.  In this series FBI agent, Kate O’Hare is tasked with managing a famous art thief, turned FBI informant, Nick Fox.  They get into some pretty hair-raising situations as they skirt along the edges of what is legal– and go over the edge quite often– in order to catch murderers and drug lords.  The action is non-stop and gives this series the kinds of qualities that one finds in action adventure movies.  That stands to reason, since Goldberg is a screenwriter and TV producer and at least one of Evanovich’s books has been turned into a movie.

In “The Job” Nick and Kate recruit some of the criminals Nick has worked with before, along with Kate’s own father, to pull a scam on a major Latin American drug lord living under an assumed identity in Marbella, Spain.  The story begins with someone apparently assuming Nick’s identity and committing art robberies in several cities around the world in order to attract Nick’s attention.  That individual is a former associate of Nick’s who just wants him to help her by taking revenge on a drug lord who killed her brother after he performed plastic surgery on the criminal.  Nick and his crew pull off a scam to make the drug lord believe he is financing the salvage of millions of dollars in gold and jewels from a shipwreck off the coast of Spain.  It’s an ingenious ruse, if one that is a little hard to believe could be pulled off so quickly or inexpensively.

Like most of Evanovich’s works “The Job” is a fast read and an entertaining plot.

Liz Nichols


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Two Himalayan Thrillers

Soul of Fire” by Eliot Pattison and “Tibetan Cross” by Mike Bond both have themes set in the Himalayas and both will leave readers both spell-bound and full of questions about international policies and actions taken in Tibet and on behalf of Tibetan freedom fighters.  Both are exciting page-turners and both will leave readers deeply troubled about what is and has been going on in Tibet and Nepal for decades.

Pattison’s new novel, “Soul of Fire,” is the eighth in his Inspector Shan Novels series.  Shan has been appointed as a token Chinese dissident to an international panel meeting in Lhasa to “investigate” the spate of self-immolation deaths of Tibetan protestors.  What Shan uncovers is a systematic attempt on the part of the commission’s Chinese handlers to control the commissions findings, discredit the Tibetan freedom-fighters and murdering anyone who objects by staging deaths as immolation suicides.  The scenes describing an immolation, which several commission members witness, is pretty graphic and grim.  It is not a subject every reader will have the stomach to read about, but anyone who follows the book to its conclusion will have a better understanding of what motivates many Tibetans to take their own lives, and also how and why Tibetan freedom-fighters continue to strike out against Chinese domination.

Bond’s “Tibetan Cross” is equally thought-provoking and it takes quite a different point-of-view.  This novel is set during the Cold War period.  Four Americans who either fought in Vietnam, or were war dissidents have set up a business in Katmandu leading treks into the Himalayan mountains.  The book opens while they are leading a group they find out are linked to the CIA on a mission that turns out to be quite different than the one they thought they signed up for.  An accident reveals that their convoy is really delivering weapons, including a nuclear bomb, to Tibetan freedom-fighters to use against the Chinese.  The CIA operatives waste no time in killing two of their American guides and chasing the other two around the world in an effort to silence them about what they saw.  The protagonist, Sam Cohen, learns through bitter experience that he cannot rely on anyone, and everyone he comes in contact with after the incident on a Nepali pass will be brutally murdered by the CIA.  “Tibetan Cross” is a very dark and cynical look at U.S. and international intelligence forces and the measures they will take to complete a mission no matter what the cost.  What I find a little disappointing is that it was difficult to develop any real sympathy for Cohen because he also employed brutal tactics and killed innocents when they got in the way.  It was hard to find anyone to actually like in this story– all the good guys were killed off.  Still, many thriller readers and fans of Bond’s earlier novels will find “Tibetan Cross” both exciting and thought-provoking. Both books get a thumbs up.







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All the Sons of Abraham by Eldred Buck

Eldred Buck, who has experience as an investment banker in London, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, has written a novel about living as an expatriot in Saudi Arabia called “All the Sons of Abraham.”  Buck clearly has extensive knowledge about international investment banking and understands what it is like to live as a foreign national in Islamic society.  Anyone looking for information on what life would be like working for a Saudi company and living in one of the international neighborhoods outside of Jeddah would do well to read this book.  The book may also be important in documenting some of the lead-up in the 1990’s to the conflicts between Islamic fundamentalists and the economic, cultural and political leadership in the West.

On the other hand, anyone looking for a fast-paced international financial thriller will not find it in “All the Sons of Abraham.”  It is simply not very thrilling.  At 802 pages it is just too long and convoluted to hold attention as a novel.  I slogged through half the book in two weeks and never got anywhere with the plot.  It is not until nearly half-way through the book that the more important elements of the plot are introduced– a financial debacle in the making precipitated by one of the managers of the Saudi bank that employes a unit of western investment bankers at their Jeddah headquarters; the radicalization of one of the sons of one of the Saudi trainees working with the western group of investment bankers; and the conflicts between western social, cultural and economic thought and practice and those of Islamic and Saudi culture.

The book is not well edited.  The first 400 pages should have been reduced to about 100 with tightly written story arcs that keep the reader looking for what happens next page after page.  The elements of intrigue and potential conflict needed to be introduced much earlier with less time spent on the issue of the main character’s mistress and how he could get away from that relationship without letting his wife know about it.  That appears to be a side-issue in the book that is really the only story arc that occupies the first 200 pages or so.  The main characters need to be developed so that the reader grows to care about what happens to at least some of them.  In half the book I still have not run into a character I really like or care about except possibly Omar, the bank financier in training who is increasingly in conflict with the very strict Islamic laws and increasingly under the surveillance of a relative who is a member of the religious police.

With some relief, I finally decided to put down “All the Sons of Abraham” and move on to one of the other many books that awaited me in my “to be read” pile.

Reviewed from a provided copy.

Liz Nichols

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Courier by Terry Irving

Terry Irving, long-time writer and producer for television and radio news programs, has written a real corker of a political thriller in “Courier”  published in April by Exhibit A Books.  On Irving’s website, he claims he fashioned the main character, a motorcycle courier for a television network office in Washington DC, after a young Nicholas Cage.  I could see a scruffed-up Ryan Gosling playing the part in what would could be a first-rate thriller movie.

Rick Putnam, the central character of “Courier,” is a Vietnam vet determined not to be swallowed up in an alcoholic haze following his stint in the service.  His nerdy roommates tolerate Rick’s loud PTSD-induced nightmares and his thrill-seeking lifestyle.  Putnam’s bosses at the television network take full advantage of his dare-devil motorcycling through the streets of Washington DC to bring them canisters of news feed faster than anyone else in the network’s courier pool.  The book is set in 1972, a particularly significant era for Washington DC news because of the Watergate hearings on election fraud and bribes going on in the Nixon White House and re-election campaign committee and Kissinger’s failed attempts to end the war through negotiation. Irving does a masterful job of setting the reader in the middle of this era of Washington intrigue.

Things go wrong in a hurry for Putnam and everyone connected to him when he picks up a camera that includes some news feed and supporting documentation that could blow the Watergate story sky-high.  The material is so hot that suddenly Rick is subjected to several attempts to run him off the road.  These incidents, combined with the sudden death of the whole news crew that gathered the story, and an apparent attack on Rick’s roommates at their rented house, make it clear that none of these situations are tragic accidents– they are attempts at assassination.  Irving’s description of all these connected incidents makes for nail-biting reading.

All of the characterizations in the book are little gems that leave vivid pictures in the reader’s mind.  So many vets and their family members will identify with Rick and his thrill-seeking, PSTD behaviors and yet he never asks for pity or to be cut any slack because of his horrendous war experiences. Many will also identify with Rick’s early experiences leaving home to join the Army to get away from an alcoholic mother.  Even minor characters, and the bad guys are memorably described in this book.  The computer-geek roommates are very memorable and play a pivotal role in breaking open the conspiracy behind the attempts on Rick’s life. Even the Vietnamese thugs who relentlessly pursue Rick, and the woman who controls their actions, Mrs. Jin, are described in a way so that the reader can understand the rationale behind their villainous actions.

The conspiracy behind this political thriller is chillingly plausible.  Irving’s fictional account posits that there was a conspiracy to thwart the Vietnamese War peace talks on the part of the Thieu government that involved flooding the Committee to Re-elect the President (Nixon campaign committee) with illegal contributions from Vietnam.  That is the secret Rick discovers is on the films he carries in his courier’s pouch and that the Vietnamese assassins want to destroy.

Courier” is without question one of the best thrillers of the year and a very good candidate for turning into a highly entertaining movie.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols


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Jaspar’s War by Cym Lowell

Jaspar’s War” is Cym Lowell’s first novel, and it is an interesting, imaginative start to what may well become a significant career as a novelist.  Lowell’s previous career was as an international tax specialist and it is that prospective that informs Lowell’s knowledge about what brought about the Great Recession.  With “Jaspar’s War” Lowell has put a sinister twist not only on the causes of the downturn, but also the dangers to real recovery embedded in government-funded economic stimulus.  His theory is probably simplistic, but could at least in theory be plausible.

Jaspar Moran is the wife of the Treasury Secretary, Trevor Moran, who is presumed dead on a flight from London that disappears.  At the time that Jaspar learns of her husband’s presumed death her two young children are kidnapped.  Jaspar is soon whisked away under deep cover in the protection of an Australian soldier of fortune/contract killer who is known to Jaspar’s priest.  Nulandi is a very enigmatic character and is probably the weakest element of “Jaspar’s War.”  The aboriginal Australian fighter has almost super-human abilities, as does his side-kick dog, Alice.  He has a heart of gold that stands in stark contrast to his no mercy approach to fighting his enemies.  Typically, serial killers are psychopaths with no capacity to feel compassion or to have a conscience.  Nulandi displays both compassion and a conscience.  He just does not come across as believable.  It is also not believable that an upper-middle class mother of two could turn into a ninja warrior with three months of intensive bootcamp, even with the tremendous incentive of saving her children.

The plot is very exciting and the many international settings (the Australian Outback, Rome, Tuscany, Washington DC to name a few) make the descriptions exceptionally colorful.  There is also a strong cultural mix.  Nulandi and his sister are aboriginal people from Australia.  Jaspar is white and a devout Catholic mother and wife from suburbia.  They interact with a band of Vietnamese emigrants to Italy who were set up in business in a Tuscany vineyard by Nulandi after the Vietnamese War.  They are Nulandi’s operatives in many of his contract kills and play key roles in the effort to find out who has kidnapped the kids and to get them back.  There is a gang of mafiosi Nulandi and his crew must defeat and various sinister financial barrons on three continents to defeat.  To add to the ethnic mix, there is even an American Indian tribal chief who is also a financial wizard who helps Nulandi to pull off this seemingly impossible mission.

All in all, I found “Jaspar’s War” an exciting, nail-biting read, but I had to suspend my belief in what is possible in order to feel any real connection to the cast of characters.

Liz Nichols

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Retribution by Anderson Harp

The international thriller, “Retribution” has just been published by Pinnacle Books/Kensington Publishing Corp.  I have been chomping at the bits to get a review out for this book for the past month.  It is one of those gripping plots where it is very hard to put the book down.  I finished all 519 pages in record time, long before I was scheduled to get this review out and I’ve spent a good share of today rereading portions of this fast-paced thriller.

Set in the harsh mountains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, a master spy, James Scott, is tasked to head a CIA/special forces operation to infiltrate a Jihadist cell, kill the terrorist leader, and stop the transport of several nuclear core devices into the U.S.   He works with a combined military special forces/CIA and MI6 group to train and deploy to Pakistan for the mission. He recruits Will Parker, who is multilingual and steeped in Islamic culture and a former Marine, to impersonate a Bosnian journalist who is about to start a new job as a journalist for an extremist Islamic publication in London.   That journalist has already been invited to visit the terrorist leader in his mountain hide-out.

Counter-intelligence operations make it clear that the post-Bin Laden leaders intend to target major population centers in the U.S. with nuclear bombs literally flown in under the radar.  These suicide bombers have been trained to fly small aircraft at low altitudes to avoid radar detection.  Once the nuclear cores are in the U.S. it will become almost impossible to stop all of the attacks. The terrorists’ leader appears to be one of the people responsible for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103, and William Parker’s  parents were among the passengers killed on that flight.    Planning for a new series of catastrophic bombings appears to be well along the way so U.S. special forces must respond quickly to the threat. Parker wants nothing more than to exact Retribution on the terrorists.

The book is a nail-biter right from the get-go.  It starts with a low altitude small plane flight across Lake Michigan from Canada to the Chicago shoreline.  From the very first chapter the reader knows that there is a real and present threat of nuclear catastrophe if the terrorist cell is not squashed immediately.    The mission seems like a real “Hail Mary” as there are so many moving parts and people to coordinate.  There is also an ingenious plan devised for Parker to kill off massive numbers of the terrorist cell without getting killed himself.  That plan almost backfires.

Harp’s experience as a Marine training officer shows through in the lingo he uses and the descriptions made of weaponry and military covert ops tactics.  No one but a well-trained military officer could have written this book.

Those who enjoyed “Lone Survivor” and “The Hurt Locker,” friends of the show “Homeland” and lovers of books by Tom Clancy will love “Retribution.”  Highly recommended as one of the best thrillers in ages.

Liz Nichols

(Reviewed using a supplied copy.)


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Whispers of Vivaldi by Beverle Graves Myers

In January Beverle Graves Myers published the sixth in her Tito Amato Mystery Series, “Whispers of Vivaldi.” Brava to Myers!

Tito Amato is a castrato at the Venetian state theater, Teatro San Marco who has lost his singing voice and in 1745 is trying to build a new career as the opera company’s director under the tutelage of the theater’s Maestro Reynaldo Torani.  Amato plans to reinvigorate the opera company by producing a new opera by a promising local musician.  The bargain struck with the minister of cultural affairs for Venice is that a young castrato singing in Milan must be recruited in order to put on the new opera. There is something in this new opera that reminds Amato and others of the young Vivaldi who died in 1741 after moving from his beloved Venice to work for the Emperor in Vienna.

There is a mystery surrounding the supposedly male soprano that puts into question whether the young Angeletto is really a boy or a girl.  To complicate matters when Torani is mysteriously killed Amato is blamed because he seems to have the most to gain by the maestro’s death.  He is banned from entering the Teatro San Marco by the state’s cultural minister, but he takes on the task of helping the local police to determine who actually did kill Torani.

Myers spins a devilishly complex yet elegantly simple tale of loss, revenge, renewal and triumph amid the romantic setting of 18th century Venice.  I enjoyed this historical and musical mystery very much and am happy to recommend “Whispers of Vivaldi” to all my mystery loving fans.

Reviewed from a supplied copy.

Liz Nichols







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