Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews “Trouble is the beginning of disaster.”

While I have been wasting my time with “thrillers” like The House Swap, and Something In The Water, extraordinary spy novels have been lying in wait for me to pick them up.

Red Sparrow is such a novel. Not since Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal, or Trevanian’s Shibumi, have I been so entranced by actions of espionage. Especially since it concerns Russia, a country toward which I have held a certain fascination for most of my life.

“I started out by following orders, trying to develop him, just as he was developing me,” she said, physically shaking. “It was a race to see who would recruit the other first.” She still resisted, she was still hanging on to the lip of the cliff. This was an evasion, not an admission. (P. 315)

Dominika wanted to be a ballet dancer. She was thwarted from fulfilling her dream not because of inability, but because another jealous dancer had Dominka’s foot deliberately crushed, leaving her unable to pursue dance. When her father suddenly dies, her uncle manipulates her into joining the Service, and then sending her to Sparrow School where the students are taught how to involve men and women in “intimately compromising” tactics.

She is sent to Helsinki to pursue Nathaniel Nash, a spy for the CIA, who in turn is told to find what he can from Dominika. In a spider web of deceit and atrocities carried out by the Russian government, the two fall in love, yet Dominika returns to Moscow where she endures unbelievably horrific methods of interrogation as she is suspected of knowing more than she allows.

A myriad of characters play off of each other, from Putin to his marionettes, to members of the CIA and those willing to collude with them, which makes for a fascinating read of espionage under terribly dangerous conditions. The moles and the agents turn and deceive, disclosing facts where they can, but hiding many others in the hopes they will not be discovered.

I found this a breathless read, and already have the next book in the trilogy (Palace of Treason) lying in wait.

Something In The Water by Catherine Steadman (I’ll tell you what it is at the bottom of this post, if you really want to know.)

I have the feeling of being too near to something I don’t want to be near to. To something dangerous. I can’t quite see what it is yet, but I feel it; it feels close. I feel the trapdoors in my mind creaking under the strain of what lies underneath. But then, of course, it could just be free money and everyone loves free money. Someone might have made a mistake, and if it doesn’t hurt anyone…then we could keep it. Free money for us. And it’s not like we don’t need it. (p. 119)

Who knew that Reese Witherspoon was a reader, or even the host of her own book club? And who knew that Catherine Steadman, who played Mabel Lane Fox in Season 5 of Downtown Abbey, calls herself a writer? Actresses becoming book mavens…I had to see what the fuss was about. For Something in The Water, one of Reese’s Book Club picks, is popping up on every screen I open with accolades too bold to ignore.

The title alone bears the immediate question, “What? What is in the water?” Could it be lemon sharks? Blacktipped sharks? Tiger sharks? Could it be panic from scuba diving more deeply than one is comfortable with doing? I must admit I was a little curious from the title, but not from such boring writing as the text quoted in the beginning of this post.

Erin and her new husband, Mark, are on their honeymoon in the South Pacific when they chance upon “something in the water.” (I’ll tell you what it is in the spoiler below, in case you don’t want to read the whole book; truly, I wish I had just known what it was so that my curiosity could be abated, and I could begin a new piece of translated literature of which I am so fond.) Their lives are immediately complicated by the allure of this discovery compounded with one foolish decision after another.

One can almost see how a young couple would be tempted to thwart professionals in their naivety, but I tired of their stupidity (particularly Erin’s stubborn perseverance into realms she had no business entering). Worse yet, I knew that her husband was not entirely straightforward when I was halfway through the novel. I’ve read Need to Know, The Girl on The Train, The Woman in The Window, The Couple Next Door, The Wife Between Us, The House Swap, and Our House, all of which are presented as thrillers only to resemble themselves in poor mimicry more often than not. I have been truly surprised at a novel’s conclusion quite infrequently, such as Scott Turow’s Presumed Innocent which was over 30 years ago.

Something in The Water may be the “talked about book of the summer”, but frankly, I don’t see why. I’m still waiting for a truly spectacular thriller to find its way into my hands. Something that held the power of The Day of The Jackal, Shibumi, or even The Bourne Identity which I adored in college.

Spoiler: This novel does have an interesting premise, that while out on the Pacific a young couple should find themselves suddenly surrounded by floating sheets of paper. Then, they hear a thunk-thunk-thunk against the side of their boot which turns out to be a nylon bag which has been zipped up and locked. They bring it to their hotel room, cut it open, and find two million dollars as well as a bag of 2 carat diamonds, an iPhone and an USB port. When they go back to the coordinates they have recorded, and Mark dives underwater to explore further, they find that a small plane has crashed and landed on the ocean floor with several people dead inside. The rest of the novel carries us through their temptation to keep the money, as well as the jewels, and the efforts they will make to hide their tracks in doing so. Somewhere along the way, Mark’s true character emerges which leaves Erin saddened, and as we knew from the first chapter, widowed.

Personally, I think that both Reese and Catherine ought to stick with acting.

How about you? Have you read it? Do you think I am the only one who is yet again disappointed with today’s “psychological thriller”?

The Woman In The Window by A. J. Finn

The Woman in the Window was one of the choices offered by the Book of The Month club, but I didn’t make it my selection because I was reluctant to go with anything titled The Woman…or Girl…(fill in the blank). But, as it kept popping up on every feed I happened to see, be it Instagram or the NYTimes book review, I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about it.

It’s surprisingly good. The writing isn’t stellar, but the plot was interesting, and the pacing was rapid, and the conclusion was satisfactory in tying together all the complicated bits we’d been given previously. There were surprises throughout, and it was the one in the middle that pleased me the most.

How can I write about a thriller without revealing anything crucial? That’s impossible. But, I will tell you that the woman in the window could be our narrator, telling what she saw out of her four-storey home’s window (where she is “trapped” due to her agoraphobia). Or, it could be the woman in the home across the street looking back at her, as her hands slide down the glass in agony.

It is an interesting story told by a woman with emotional complications in her life, not in the slightest helped by her drinking or abuse of medications. So we wonder, as we read carefully on, is she reliable? Is she telling the truth? More specifically, is her story only her truth and no one else’s?

It was interesting to find out. It was a most satisfactory psychological thriller.

Origin by Dan Brown “Where do we come from? Where are we going?”

Where did we come from? Where are we going?

These are the essential questions posed in this thriller set in Barcelona where all the art and architecture is real, even if the questions are elusive. 

Edmond Kirsch, former student of Harvard professor Robert Langdon, has staged a dramatic presentation in which he plans to reveal his findings on the origin of man. Were we created? Did we crawl out of a primordial ooze? Or, is there a third possibility no one has yet understood? But, before he can reveal what he wants to share he is shot, setting forth a series of dramatic events such as only Dan Brown can write.

Two of the central characters are led by a computer with a British voice named Winston, in an often charming parody of Churchhill with his insight and witticisms. But, brilliant as the computer may be, it is still only a machine, and technology can be as fallible as the man who created it.

Brown closes each chapter with us hanging suspensefully on an unfinished idea, or unresolved event, so that we are compelled to go on to the next chapter. (You might be familiar with his techniques if you read The DaVinci Code.) He does a brilliant job of creating a scene, posing fascinating theories, and revealing the meaning behind symbols. Best of all, to me, is the way that he gave equal weight to science and religion, making a case for neither as he leaves it up to the reader to establish his own conclusion. 

Even though I tired, somewhat, toward the end, there is an implication about technology which is so stunning, and so unnerving, I think Origin is well worth the read. It makes me think of the famous quote by Mark Twain, “Truth is stranger than fiction.”

Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (My favorite thriller of the year, to be published this January.)

Need To Know is a remarkably well-written thriller by Karen Cleveland, who spent eight years as a CIA analyst focusing on counterterrorism. She clearly knows of what she writes as every sequence of events seems entirely realistic. And worse, plausible.

“Sometimes,” she begins haltingly, “we think that shielding the truth will protect those we love the most.”

Vivian Miller works for the CIA, particularly uncovering information regarding Russia. From the very beginning, we feel her shock as she comes across a folder entitled Friends which belongs to a handler named Yurey. She opens the folder to discover that one of the faces is very familiar to her.

It is the face of her husband.

What she does with that information, how she strives to protect her children and be faithful to both her country and her family, comprises the novel in its entirety.

It is a gripping novel, one that had me turning pages as rapidly as I could. It is one of those rare thrillers that makes you lose the sense of time and place as you seek the conclusion; dreading, but suspecting deep down, that what you are afraid of happening will in the end be revealed as fact.

Need to Know brings into question what we accept as truth, and how far we will go to protect those we love. Or, even ourselves.

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips

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As he’s speaking, a sharp, loud sound carries through the woods. Two cracks, then several more. Pops, like balloons bursting. Or fireworks. She tries to imagine what anyone could be doing in a zoo that would sound like small explosions…

There is another bang. Another and another. It sounds too loud to be balloons, too infrequent to be a jackhammer.

The birds are silent, but the leaves keep skittering down.

The tension is real from the very first chapter. It is the kind of tension I key right into. What was that sound? What if I arrive at the gate too late, and the park is closed locking me within? Worse, what if something endangers my son?

The quiet man and the loud man are in the zoo,  hunting. People have fallen in various positions all around the entrance, and more are in hiding, particularly Joan and her four year old son, Lincoln.

She has her cell phone, from which she has informed her husband that  she is hiding with their son in the empty porcupine cage. She is behind a huge rock, telling her son to be quiet while she holds him tightly against herself, and the tension is palatable. I feel that I am her, hiding, hoping desperately that I will not be found.

I am her, holding my son, who when he was four asked the same kind of existential questions Lincoln asks. “What do strangers look like?” my son once asked me. “How can bad people be happy?” Lincoln asks his mother when he hears the men with guns laugh.

When Joan leaves her hiding place with her four year old, because he is hungry and she wants to find him something to eat, I want to scream, “Don’t leave! You have been safe where you are.” But they venture forth, finding a living colobus monkey standing over a fallen one, a dead elephant which at first appears to be an “ink-stain shape on the ground.”

This novel is mesmerizing and terrifying on several counts. For once, it’s not the gone girl, or the disappearing woman, or a girl on a train.  It’s a mother, in a situation which feels entirely possible in today’s world. It’s a mother and a son and evil, twisted men that are scarier than a clown holding some balloons could ever be.

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world by Jorge Zepeda Patterson (a thriller for Spanish Lit Month)

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Milena isn’t Russian, as supposed, and she didn’t come to Mexico of her own free will. She was captured as a teen in Croatia by a human-trafficking ring and forced into prostitution.

When the novel opens, her benefactor has just died in her arms. He is the owner of El Mundo, and has prepared for such an event by writing a letter which instructs his daughter to protect his love, Milena, and to take the black book away from her because it could ruin the family.

What black book? How could it destroy the family? The secrets are many and multi-layered in this Spanish thriller which won the  Premio Planeta. (A literary prize of $800,000.)

Milena, or the most beautiful femur in the world was sent to me by Restless Books. I read it for Spanish Lit Month with an ache in my heart for the women who suffer in this trade, and the men who are oblivious to their suffering.

The next day, each of them (the men who came to the prostitutes) went on with his normal life, beyond the boundary of that hell they financed, thinking they had integrity and that paying a stack of euros got them off the hook for any wrongdoing.

Jorge Zepeda Patterson does a brilliant job of portraying the darkest aspects of prostitution and its inherent evil; of men taking advantage of anyone they can to gain power. He shows us the inner workings of the mafias engaged in human-trafficking and the groups laundering money for organized crime.

A far cry from Javier Marias’ gentle, even enigmatic prose, reading this novel is like watching a film. One that carries scenes all the more horrifying because they can be found in real life. It is a shocking book, and violent, incredibly fast paced and an exceptional thriller for those who enjoy this genre.

The Switch by Joseph Finder (“Surveillance is civility. You got nothin’ to hide, you got nothin’ to fear.”)

IMG_4158I might have had trouble with the idea that an important political figure would leave her password on a Post-it note stuck to the outside of her laptop if I hadn’t watched Hillary mishandle her cell phone for over a year. But knowing of the idiotic things that senators (and such) can do with their technology, the premise of The Switch becomes not only fascinating, but credible.

While going through airport security in Los Angeles, Senator Susan Robbins’ laptop is accidentally picked up by Michael Tanner. It isn’t until he gets home to Boston that he discovers the error and realizes their computers have been switched. Then he sees the Post-it at the bottom of the laptop with the password. The more he tries to find out whose computer he has, the more he realizes that he is in possession of top secret files which the Senator and her aide will do anything to retrieve.

A series of ensuing incidents can only be interpreted as threats. There is an ever encroaching danger on Michael Tanner’s life which is only preserved because he is in possession of the MacBook Air which Robbins’ staff cannot find. His reporter friend has been presumed to have committed suicide; he gets a call that his coffee roasting company has suddenly caught fire in the middle of the night.

As he danger increases, so does an understanding of the underlying premises in this novel. Are we a society so caught up in technology that it has power over us rather than the other way around?

Worse still, is it possible for America to become  “a surveillance state, (and) eventually a dictatorship”?

“Forget privacy; what we all really want is convenience. We write private emails that our employer has the legal right to read, am I right? Every time you use your SpeedPass in the turnpike or swipe your debit card at Walmart or buy your meds at CVS, you’re being tracked. You got OnStar in your car, Waze  on your phone? You know they track where you went and how fast to got there, and they can sell your data to anyone they want? And if you don’t know all this, you’re not as smart as I thought. You really think you got privacy anymore? Every time you walk down the streets of the city your picture’s being taken by a surveillance camera. There’s automatic license-plate readers all over the place. Google knows everything you’ve ever searched online. We live our lives in public all the time, like it or not.”

This is an extremely satisfying thriller, well written and thought-provoking, making me question on this Independence Day just how independent we really are. Even in America.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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“With FindTheOne.com there are no blind-date nerves, there’s no stilted conversations over dinner. I’d argue it’s more honest than most online dating sites, with their airbrushed photos and their profiles full of lies. Salary range, hobbies, favorite foods…all irrelevant. Who builds a relationship on a mutual love of tapas? A match might be perfect on paper, yet lack the spark needed to set it alight.

FindTheOne.com cuts through all that rubbish; the pretense that anyone cares if you like opera or walks in the park. It means men can take their time. They can follow you for a while, engage you in conversation; see if you’re interesting enough to take for dinner, instead of wasting their time on a garrulous airhead. It means men can get up close and personal. Smell your perfume; your breath; your skin. Feel a spark. Act on it.”

I must admit to the guilty pleasure of reading a thriller. I like to read them scattered between translated or classical literature, simply for the ride. But, I don’t like all thrillers. I didn’t like Gone Girl, for example, and I wasn’t particularly taken with The Girl on The Train. However, I See You kept me engaged all afternoon.

It is based on the premise that a web site sells the details of women’s commutes to work, from which Tube line they take, to the carriage in which they sit, to the exit they use in heading for home. When Zoe discovers a connection between an advertisement on the Gazette and subsequent murders of the women pictured on each advert, the tension rises palatably until its surprising crescendo.

Try as I might, I could not guess the perpetrator. But, Clare Mackintosh does not forcibly manipulate either her reader, or the clues, into a neat little package. The resolution makes perfect sense and has been drawn carefully from the first chapter if one is mindful enough to see it.

If the reader will remember that it is not just the site, nor those who are drawn to it, but the mastermind behind it all. The mind that causes Zoe, and now me, to carefully observe her surroundings to see if anyone follows her with malicious intent.

 

Other reviews:

“Mackintosh scripts a hair-raising ride all the scarier because its premise—that our predictable routines make us easy targets—is sadly so plausible.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“[T]he steadily thickening paranoia will leave readers questioning their comfortable routines…a well-crafted blend of calculated malevolence, cunning plot twists, and redemption that will appeal to fans of Sophie Hannah, Ruth Rendell, and Ruth Ware.” —Booklist, starred review

Packed with suspense, twists, and turns…[Mackintosh’s] meticulous detail to investigative accuracy and talent in weaving a thrilling tale set her work apart from others in the field.” —Kirkus

(I See You by Clare Mackintosh will be published on February 21, 2017. Thanks to Penguin for the Advanced Reading Copy.)

The Trespasser by Tana French

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It starts slowly, and continues that way, almost painfully so. But then, as only Tana French knows how to do, you are suddenly caught up into dialogue and characterization that is so compelling you must continue to the end.

Is beautiful, Barbie-like Aislinn killed by a random stalker? By her date, Rory, for whom she is preparing dinner? Or, by a detective from within the police force itself? What matters, perhaps, is not who committed the murder as much as how we get there.

I am caught up in the thought process of Antoinette Conway and Steve Moran, sweating it out in the interrogation room, feeling Antoinette’s isolation and insecurity not quite covered up by the bravado with which she likes to cloak herself.  I search my life for the likes of Steve, her trusted partner and dependable colleague, and find that I, too, am not entirely alone even when I feel that way acutely.

I like the power of Tana French’s novels; they are never contrived, or trite, but look beyond the mystery to the core of each character. Who seem so very real to me.