Those Who Disappeared by Kevin Wignall

Having read all of the awesomely named Kevin Wignall‘s books, when given the opportunity to grab Those Who Disappeared on NetGalley I jumped at the chance. And like most Wignall books, I can say that I enjoyed this one and read it pretty quickly.

When a man’s body is discovered in a Swiss glacier thirty years after he went missing, his son, Foster Treherne, hopes he’ll finally have closure on what happened to the father he never met. But then the autopsy reveals signs of a struggle, and what was assumed to be a tragic accident suddenly looks more sinister.

Foster tracks down his father’s old friends, but when he starts to ask questions it becomes clear that there’s something they don’t want to tell him. While some are evasive, others seem to wish the body had never been found. What exactly is their connection to each other, and why are they so reluctant to discuss the day his father disappeared? Who are they trying to protect?

If he wants to uncover what really happened, Foster must follow the trail of secrets and lies—no matter how devastating the consequences, and what they might reveal about his father. Because the truth can only stay buried for so long…

It was a thought provoking and engaging read. Wignall’s characters are always interesting and unique and Faster is no exception

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Layover by David Bell

I will admit to being a fickle reader these days. My life has been rather crazy at the last four months or so, more anon on that perhaps, and so my mood seems to change regularly. Sometimes I am reading serious nonfiction, sometimes literary fiction but at other times what I really need is something to entertain and distract me from the chaos seemingly surrounding me. The search for intelligent books that still manage to do this, is always going on.

It was this search which led me to Layover by David Bell. I have not read any of his previous works, but I was intrigued by the hook for Layover when I got an email from a publicist about a blog tour. What hook, you ask? Essentially, constantly traveling businessman meets beautiful stranger in an airport and decides his life is not what he wants it to be and so reckless chases after her. Trouble follows. No seriously, he ends up in a hospital trying to put his scrambled memory back together. The rest of the book is his confession of what happened.

I will confess this is not the type of thriller I typically read. If I read thrillers it is usually the espionage or international intrigue type. And Layover got off to a slow start. But once I got into I actually stayed up into the wee hours of the morning to finish it.

There are two issues/problems as I see it. One is plausibility. Many readers might question whether the seemingly sane lead character, Joshua Fields, would really make the type of asinine decisions he does. And the second, is that the secondary character, Kimberly Givens, is given a lot of time when it didn’t seem to add a great deal to the story. She is a divorced single-mom trying to win a promotion, etc. But how exactly her personal life adds to the overall story I am not sure. Her detective work didn’t really add an element of suspense it just was a vehicle to add details to the plot from a perspective other than Josh’s.

Layover served its purpose in giving me an entertaining distraction but it wasn’t good enough to make me what to seek out more of David Bell’s writing. As always, your mileage may vary depending on how much you enjoy this genre, style, etc.

Quick Take: One Fatal Mistake by Tom Hunt

A little torn on One Fatal Mistake by Tom Hunt. It turned out to be the fast paced thriller I was looking for when I grabbed it from NetGalley. But I was left cold by the ending. Everything went barreling toward a climax and then it just kind of ended.

When eighteen-year-old Joshua Mayo takes a man’s life in a terrible accident, he leaves the scene without reporting the crime to the police. He hopes to put the awful night behind him and move on with his life. But, of course, he ends up telling his mother, Karen, what happened.

Karen has raised Joshua on her own in Cedar Rapids, Iowa–and she’d thought they’d finally made it. He was doing well in school and was only months away from starting college at his dream school. After hearing his dark confession, she’s forced to make a choice no parent should have to make. A choice that draws them both into a web of deceit that will change their lives forever–if they can make it out alive.

The story is an interesting exploration of how things can go horribly wrong in a flash and how these intense moments, and a fierce dedication to loved ones, can make moral decision making difficult.

A fast and entertaining read but didn’t stick the landing, IMO.

A Fragile Thing by Kevin Wignall

Note: this has been edited. I hit publish a little too quickly and wanted to add a little more background and context.

I have been a fan of Kevin Wignall for some time (I think my first review was over 13 years ago).  And you would think I would not be disturbed by his approach at this point (I mention it in every review).  But I seem to have been tripped up once more by his latest work, A Fragile Thing.

It is basically the story of Max Emerson, the son of a wealthy expat family living in Europe parents in Switzerland, sister in Lyon, etc.).  But Max’s growing fortune comes from investing, and laundering, the money of international criminals and oligarchs.  Despite his wealth, there are clouds on the horizon.  His family has ostracized him, the FBI is looking into his past, and hackers are poking around his business.  Soon it seems like the secrets of his past, and as his parents secrets are revealed, are going to upend and unravel his life.

I finished reading it in June and posted this at Goodreads at the time as an initial response/reaction:

Hmm, not sure how I feel about this one. Some interesting elements and characters but left me kind of confused at the end. Almost felt like book one in a series where the characters are introduced but there is a lot left to flush out. Ending felt abrupt. Still mulling it.

When I realized it was released today and I needed to post my thoughts, I went back to the book and tried to wrestle with my ambiguity.  I enjoyed reading it but something just didn’t settle right; I was unsatisfied in some way.  After thinking about it, I think I didn’t like the book as much as I normally do Wignall’s writing for two reasons:

  1. It bugged me that the main character was a man comfortable using mobsters and other unsavory characters (something of an understatement) to gain fabulous wealth.  And was comfortable having people killed and killing people himself.  He seems cold, cut off and rather arrogant.  I just really didn’t like him.
  2. The book read almost as a series of vignettes that ended somewhat abruptly with a number of loose ends tied up. My first reaction to the book being finished was huh? It left me unsatisfied.

The second point could be more related to my reading it in fits and starts on my Kindle before bed. I might have struggled to get into it because I was reading for only a few minutes at a time but then it seemed like just when I got into it and the action picked up it was over.

The first issue, however, is just something you have to deal with when you read Wignall.  As I noted in my review of Who is Conrad Hirst?:

If there is something that makes me uncomfortable about Wignall’s work it has always been what I take to be his moral ambiguity.  Wignall doesn’t reflect a moral equivalence like some Cold War spy novelists – the idea that America and the Soviets were equally power hunger and willing to kill for their cause – so much as an absence of clear right or wrong.  Each individual has to define what is right and wrong for themselves.  The individualism/relativism is strong but it sometimes feels darker; there is almost a touch of nihilism involved.

Does moving that approach from hit men to wealthy investor/businessman make it worse somehow? I don’t know, but I think that underlying perspective still rubs me the wrong way.

All that said, I did enjoy reading A Fragile Thing.  I thought the plot hook was interesting and kicked the book off with a sense of tension and mystery.  And  there is some deft character building and plotting throughout. Max and his employees and contacts; his relationship with his family and the backstory of his parents; and his self-exploration about his lack of relationships and friends outside his business are well done and interesting in many ways.

There is a building suspense as the pressure mounts and the secrets are revealed. The reader is thinking: “How is Max going to deal with the multiple thread in his life that seem to be coming undone?”  And Wignall answers this question with some twists and turns.

But I have to say, I just didn’t like Max Emerson and in some way probably wanted him to fail.  But as I like to say, your mileage may vary … ;-)

 

PhDeath: The Puzzler Murders by James Carse

PhDeath: The Puzzler Murders by James Carse is a murder mystery/thriller that is fast-paced and hard to figure out.

From the publisher:

PhDeath is a fast-paced thriller set in a major university in a major city on a square. The faculty finds itself in deadly intellectual combat with the anonymous Puzzler. Along with teams of US Military Intelligence and the city’s top detective and aided by the Puzzle Master of The New York Times, their collective brains are no match for the Puzzler’s perverse talents.

According to Carse, the book is directed toward four types of people – readers of the thriller genre or attracted to a novel of ideas, puzzle aficionados, and those concerned about the erosion of the university’s commitment to universal education. After reading the book, I can see all of those people enjoying this book.

The puzzles are intriguing (although I have to admit I skipped a few of them to get to the solution) and the way the puzzles are solved by the committee created to solve them is fascinating. Carse knows how to create a puzzle and how to explain how to solve it.

Carse also uses his insider knowledge of higher education (emeritus professor at New York University) in developing the characters and plot. The murder victims are composites of people who are very realistic. However, one of them apparently was based on a real person – he leaves it up to the reader to determine who that is.

An engaging and easy read.

A Death in Sweden by Kevin Wignall

I have been a fan of Kevin Wignall since I read People Die in 2004.  I have read most of his work and interviewed him a couple of times.  He is not exactly a prolific author, so when I heard he had a new book coming out I was excited to check it out.  I actually got a chance to read A Death in Sweden a few weeks early thanks to the Kindle First program.  But alas, my poor book reviewing habits and the holiday’s intervened and I never posted my thoughts.

A Death in SwedenDan Hendricks is a man in need of a lifeline. A former CIA operative, he is now an agent for hire by foreign powers on the hunt for dangerous fugitives. It’s a lethal world at the best of times, and Dan knows his number is almost up. His next job could be his last—and his next job is his biggest yet.

The target sounds trackable enough: Jacques Fillon, who gave up his life trying to save a fellow passenger following a bus crash in northern Sweden. But the man was something of an enigma in this rural community, and his death exposes his greatest secret: Jacques Fillon never existed at all.

Dan is tasked with uncovering Fillon’s true identity—but can he do so before his own past catches up with him?

A Death in Sweden starts with a very memorable scene and the rest of the book seeks in some way to make sense of what happened in that scene; uncover the mystery behind it.  As Dan Hendricks seeks to put the pieces together he begins to attempt the same thing in his own life.  Who is he really?  What does he value and what future does he want for himself?

The problem is that he is caught in the middle of a secret but very real battle between powerful people.  Loyalties are murky, trust is hard to come by, and each decision seems to be one of life and death.

The thread that starts with that bus trip winds its way through Madrid, Paris, Sweden, Washington DC, the Middle East, Berlin, and back to Sweden.  Along the way, Hendricks has to stay alive, collect enough information and answers to perhaps buy himself time and/or a future, and solve the enigma that is Jacques Fillon.  The question is whether the former can help with the later and whether he can survive long enough to find out.

And just to complicate things, Wignall throws in a romantic interest.  So Hendricks has another set of emotions and thoughts to wrestle with and find answers to.

A Death in Sweden reads like a mix of genres: espionage, mystery and action thriller.  The mystery element is tied to the bus ride that kicks off the novel and the questions that underlay the identities of the two individuals who are the focus of that scene.

The espionage element comes in because the people and agencies involved in seeking to solve these mysteries are spies and governments.  Underneath it all is a battle for information and power with political, and life and death, consequences.

The action thriller aspect comes about as the battle moves from information to brute force.  Ultimately, Hendricks chooses violence as a partial solution to his dilemma.  Sometimes the violence is forced on him and sometimes he goes on the offensive.  The action elements don’t dominate the book necessarily but they come in intense bursts.

As noted above, however, weaved into all of this is also a romantic interest.  Which forces Hendricks to deal with questions that he was not prepared to wrestle with and choices he had not anticipated.  This leads to a contrast, maybe even an incongruity, between the cold and violent nature of Hendricks profession and actions and his relationship with Inger and his thoughts of a different future.

In fact, this is another thread that runs through the novel.  Is it possible to truly leave behind a life of secrecy and violence?  Can someone like Hendricks settle down and build a “normal” life?  The ending hints at no but also leaves it ambiguous.

Starting with that very first review of People Die I have wondered about Wignall’s almost amoral perspective.  His characters live and act in a world where traditional morality seems not to apply or must at least be set aside in some sense.

A Death in Sweden shares this perspective in some ways but also incorporates other perspectives.  Hendricks is pulled by the loyalty and dedication of a variety of characters he encounters; from Fillon and the friends/colleagues he is seeking to help survive to the families impacted by the history he is trying to uncover and decipher.  And his relationship with Inger also involves a pull toward commitment and normalcy.

I don’t want to accuse Wignall of aiming for mainstream fiction or coldly calculating the value of a romantic interest in a book like this, but it did change the feel of the novel for me.  Not bad, just different.

A Death in Sweden is a quick and entertaining read.  With a nice blend of tension, mystery, action and, yes, a little romance.  It isn’t really an action thriller and not your typical spy thriller either.  It felt to me more like a mystery with espionage and action elements.

If like me, you are facing the start of a cold and bleak winter, A Death in Sweden would make a good read for an afternoon bundled up on the couch with a hot beverage.

An Evening with Steve Berry (Kinda)

As I mentioned a few days back, best-selling thriller author Steve Berry was in town as part of some Thurber House events.  I didn’t get to hang out at the reception nor was I able to attend the writing workshop but I was able to hear him speak on Friday (hence the kinda in the title).

Steve_Berry_webBerry, the author of most recently The Lincoln Myth, is a best-selling author of dozens of thrillers including the Cotton Malone series.  He is also a big supporter of historic preservation.  Berry and his wife created a foundation, History Matters, to support this passion and since 2009 have been traveling the country raising money to help the cause.

Friday’s event was also a result of this passion. Berry was part of the Evenings with Authors series with Thurber House last year and wanted to come back and help Thurber in their preservation efforts.  So they put together a reception, author event and writing workshop with all proceeds going to fund the Thurber House.

As part of this preservation focus on Friday Doreen Uhas-Sauer, from the Columbus Landmarks Foundation, gave a small talk on her background in history and preservation and its connection to James Thurber.

Berry then took the stage (he paced the stage rather than stand behind the podium) and discussed his latest book. Rather than offer a reading he discussed the historical hook and background which is the engine of his latest Cotton Malone thriller.

The Lincoln MythIt involves Abraham Lincoln, Mormons, and the issue of secession.  As a lawyer and a history buff, let a lone an author of historical thrillers, it was clearly a subject Berry found fascinating.  Equally clearly, he loves to dive into subjects and find ways to twist history just enough to create an entertaining story.

Not having read any of his books I can’t tell you how well he succeeds but judging by his book sales and the fans in attendance on Friday, quite well.

After offering some background and teasing the book he then opened it up for questions.  He talked about the writing process, what he reads for pleasure (thrillers but not much because of the lack of time and the blurbs he writes for fellow authors), Abraham Lincoln, potential TV and movie deals, and whatever else the audience was interested in.

I asked about the brouhaha over Amazon recently and he responded that it was just a supplier and distributor arguing over pricing (one side wanted a bigger cut of profits while the other was unwilling to give up more).  He was confident that it would be resolved but that the same scenario would play itself out as other publisher contracts come up for renewal. He noted that it was the author and the readers that end up bearing the brunt of the pain.

He was very relaxed and naturally engaging; clearly comfortable on stage and taking questions. Not surprising as he has been doing this all across the country for years.

It was an interesting way to get a sense of an author’s style, personality and interests.  I am sure for the die-hard fans who have read all of his books it was even more fun.

If you are in the Central Ohio area, or Ohio more generally, I encourage you to connect with the Thurber House.  They bring in a variety of authors and writers for events and workshops in addition to managing the Thurber House itself.

As luck would have it we are just entering the Literary Picnics season.  Check out the offerings this summer:

Wednesday, June 11: Scott McKenzieThe Man Behind the Nose: Larry Bozo Harmon
Wednesday, June 25: David Giffels, The Hard Way on Purpose
Wednesday, July 9: Andrew Welsh-Huggins, Fourth Down and Out: An Andy Hayes Mystery
Wednesday, July 23: Claire McMillan, Gilded Age
Wednesday, August 6: Tony Mendoza, A Cuban Summer

And if you are a fan of historical thrillers and haven’t checked out Steve Berry get crackin’ …

A Conversation with Olen Steinhauer – Part One

Oeln SteinhauerIf you know me or have read this blog for any length of time it is not a secret that I am a big fan of Olen Steinhauer. I have read all of his books and interviewed him a number of times.  He is one of those authors I would like to call “a friend of the blog.”

So what better way to break out of my recent funk but to fire up the podcast and have another conversation?  As luck would have it, Olen has a new book out, The Cairo Affair, which makes for the perfect topic of conversation.

Olen and I talked about The Cairo Affair, the risk of bringing current events into a novel, the magic of fiction, his approach to writing, plot and characters development, and more.  Part One is above and I will post Part Two tomorrow.

Enjoy.

UPDATE: Part Two now posted.