Hiding Out in Thailand

I recently posted 4-star reviews of my first two Jake Needham reads–Laundry Man and The Ambassador’s wife. It’s hard to get that fifth star out of me, but Killing Plato puts Needham into the superstar class of international thrillers, right up there with Cussler, Child, and the rest.

Plato Karsarkis is a high-profile–very high profile–fugitive living in the Phuket resort area south of Bangkok. Jack Shepherd is a former high-finance lawyer, semi-retired, who’s teaching college in Bangkok, where he lives with his new Italian-artist wife. Suddenly, Karsarkis wants Jack for something. What it is, Jack doesn’t care because he wants nothing to do with this guy who got rich selling embargoed Iraqi oil to terrorists. Plato came close to trial for his misdeeds once, but the one witness who could have convicted (Kasarkis claims exonerate) him had her throat slashed in a DC hotel room, so Plato took it on the lam.

Try as he might, Jack can’t seem to disentangle himself from this thing he doesn’t understand how he got tangled up in. Before long, he’s surrounded by the CIA, the FBI, some rogue organization that could be both or neither, and the Thai secret service. And there are reverberations that go all the way back to the white house.

How this all works out–or doesn’t–keeps you not only thrilled but emotionally involved, for Needham traces not only the action, but the sad deterioration of a marriage. And not only does he not interrupt the action to portray this painful romance, he uses it to enhance the action.

I’ve said too much, but I can’t say enough. Do a Nike move and just read it.

Bring Up the Bodies

Chronologically, this a sequel to Hilary’s superb Wolf Hall, to which I gave five stars recently. Wolf Hall traces the separation of Henry VIII from the pope and the Roman church in a dispute over the dissolution of his marriage to Katherine of Spain. We see the events through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, who rises from the gutter to become Henry’s “Master Secretary,” perhaps the equivalent to our president’s “chief Counsel,” and Attorney General combined, though there is no proper 16th Century equivalent for what Cromwell does.

Bring Up the Bodies takes up as the relationship between Henry and Anne is deteriorating. Elizabeth is a young girl, but Anne has still failed to deliver a proper (i.e., male) heir, which Henry needs to stabilize the dynasty and the realm. Anne’s hold on the throne has been tenuous from the beginning among blue-bloods and commoners alike. Depending on who’s speaking, she’s still considered a heretic, witch, adulteress, and usurper.

Overall, Bodies lacks the dramatic tension of Wolf Hall, a book which is taut and involving throughout. Its terrific opening scene where Cromwell is being beaten by his blacksmith father is a shocking prelude to the compelling tale of a common man’s rise from the gutter to royal counselor. How uses his native shrewdness, learning as he goes how to handle men, women, and paperwork, enthralls us on every page. When, eventually, he becomes the lead legal honcho in all the negotiations involved in the complex and intense maneuvering required to separate the king from his wife and England from Rome, and to bring Anne Boleyn to the royal bed, we’re as much taken with Cromwell’s personal involvement as with all the affairs of state and the royal heart. Bring Up the Bodies suffers somewhat from starting at a point at which Cromwell has already made it. In fact, his main struggles at the beginning are how to best suck the wealth of the Abbeys the king has “decommissioned” into the royal treasury and take a cut for himself in the process. All of this is interesting, but lacking somewhat in theater.

Where things get going is when it becomes time to move against Anne and usher in her successor, Lady Jane Seymour. Now we see that Cromwell has become something more than a sharp guy from the streets with lofty ambitions. As he moves against the accused adulterers, the men who will be executed for fornicating with the queen, he focuses on the spoils, the houses and fortunes that will be vacated by their executions and thus become available in part to him. In short, he’s become more than a little corrupt and venal. He protects one man he finds useful and can call friend, for example, even though the evidence against him is as good (or lacking) as that against the others. The rest get the ax. In all this last third of the novel we get the electricity of Wolf Hall. The rest is every good, carried by Mantel’s unique and often delicious literary style, but none of it has the juice of the last 150 pages. And they’re well worth waiting for.

A Crook With a Noble Mission

Eddie Chapman was a true life con-man and thief who turned his talents and inclinations to the wartime (WWII) service of his country. He was more or less loyal to England and to himself, but, as one of his handlers put it, he’d was the sort to do you a good turn while lifting your wallet. He was a libidinous drinker who was loyal to his lovers in, as the song says, his own way. He might leave, but he’d always come back. Eventually.

Ben MacIntyre traces Chapman’s life as he moves from his flashy pre-war exploits and incursion into the ranks of West End glamour (Noel Coward was an associate for a while.) into a jail term and hence into a pardon in return for becoming a double agent. If you’re looking for insight into the criminal mind–even beyond Les Edgerton’s The Bitch and Just Like That as well as an spy tale worthy of John LeCarre, you won’t do better than Agent Zigzag.

The guy was such a master. Playing both his English handlers off against one another and his German colleagues likewise. He leveraged his skills and knowledge into money and prestige and a bit of power and sex, and he enjoyed himself the whole way. He had a loyal bone or two in his body, but not an honest one. Even though you know the outcome, the twists and turns of his trips back and forth between England and the continent, the love affairs, the betrayals keep you on pins and needles every page.

In the end, I had nothing but admiration and affection for this guy, despite the fact that he was in many ways a thoroughly despicable person. I guess that’s what they mean by the Stockholm effect or something. When you read it, don’t skip the epilogue. It contains stories of people who came forward after the book’s original publication, folks Macintyre hadn’t encountered in the first go-round. Fascinating story, well written.

The First Coming of a Sirenshaper

Alexandra Pelaez’s novella, Wax Under Flame, is the precursor to a full novel of what is apparently a new genre–literature of dystopia (as opposed to utopia, of course.) Never knew it was a separate thing, but there you are. I would have called this a work of post-apocalyptic science fiction/fantasy, but that’s cumbersome compared to “dystopia” so if simplicity is better, maybe the term is an improvement. At any rate, I must grant that her Twitter handle “sirenshaper” fits this book nicely.

Where we are in this elegantly titled work is in a world dominated by such folks as rape gangs and toughsluts and cryptkeepers. Of special note here is the language. She plays a lot with words and in intriguing ways. “There’s something very spiral about this guy.” “It was thrill, but it wasn’t enough. He wanted. . .more.” Nicely done.

Our protagonist is a singularly combative psychic named Dane, whose main preoccupation is survival in an environment where everyone is out to get you. Thing is, most people have a gang to protect them. Dane has only herself, and the strain is beginning to tell.

We love her toughness and her stamina. As she goes through a slough of crises, we get to know a little about her life, about the history and mythology of this world, and of her special place in it. A place hidden even from her until near the end of the book. What she’s going to do with her new knowledge is a matter for the larger work that Pelaez has promised is coming next year, and we look forward to it.

Sitting up and clapping

Who Left That Gate Open?

Tryan’s Thirst is my first expedition into Paranormal Romance, a genre I didn’t even know existed till I joined the Solstice Publishing Authors group recently. My contact with paranormal literature has been pretty much confined to a couple of Anne Rice novels a while back, and she has a way of making the back and forth into imaginary worlds not so abnormal. Of course, there’s C.S. Lewis, and there’s Lewis Carroll, and there’s all that sci-fi I consumed in earlier years, but believe me, this is something quite different.

The novel opens with an overweight, lonely young lady (Kat/Kathryn) getting fired from her job in a supermarket. Author Lindsen lets us know her problems up front, but she also lets us know she has spunk because she’s dismissed for throwing a pack of batteries at a rude customer. Thus, soon after, when the gates of hell open in her neighborhood, allowing vampires, zombies, and furies out for their every-century-or-so romp and feast among the human population, we can tell she has a chance. Sure enough, guts and ingenuity get her through the first few hours, and it looks as if she’ll survive.

Fast forward a couple of years. Kat has shrunk from a 16 to a 2 and is in great shape, though her life is in peril every moment of every day. Then comes Tryan and…well, it would be unfair to reveal more of this thrill-a-minute story. Suffice it to say there’s enough blood, sex, and violence to keep you mightily entertained through the whole novella. Despite some shortcomings in prose and plot, the characters are strong and interesting (have to be. Gore and semen is never enough by itself.), and the ending is one of those…well, once again, read it for yourself and find out. It was my first venture into paranormal romance, and I’m betting it won’t be my last.

Sitting up