Steel Fear, by Brandon Webb and John David Mann*****

Steel Fear is the first in a series by Brandon Webb and John David Mann. It’s billed as a “high-octane thriller,” and that’s what it is. My thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the invitation to read and review. You can buy this book now.

Before starting the novel, I flipped to “About the Authors,” which is at the end of the book. Webb is a retired SEAL himself, boasting a list of awards as long as your flippers. He is a top level frog, which is a combat diver, and he not only is trained as a sniper, but has been in charge of training other snipers. Suffice to say, he is qualified to write a book like this and knows what he’s talking about. This thriller took ten years to see publication, and a good part of that delay was getting one aspect after another of his description of the aircraft carrier, The Abraham Lincoln, cleared by the Pentagon. Mann is not ex-military, but has an impressive list of achievements in the arts.

Our protagonist is Finn, a SEAL who’s being sent back to the states on The Abraham Lincoln. He doesn’t know why; nobody on the boat does, either; and he cannot reach anyone that can enlighten him. This keeps Finn off balance, the reader doesn’t know whether Finn is trustworthy, so that keeps the reader off balance, too. We meet him when Monica Halsey, a helicopter pilot who is also an important character, is sent to pick him up. Two men approach the helicopter, and they are described as a large man that looks like a mountain lion, and a little guy that looks like a marsupial. Finn is the marsupial, and when I learn that he is a funny-looking little guy, it endears him to me. When we see him disappear on board ship, blending in, seeing and hearing things he isn’t meant to, it’s all the more impressive. I still don’t know if I should like this guy, yet I do.

The crew is reeling from a horrible, unexplainable accident that took the lives of a helicopter crew; soon after, there is a suicide, and then another. Suicide, we learn, is at epidemic levels in the military, and so at first, most people don’t question it; but both suicides are a little too similar, and Halsey smells a rat. So does Finn.

At the outset, there’s a great deal of description of the aircraft carrier, and at first I feel impatient to get on with the story, but soon I can see that the setting is very important, and the description is necessary to understanding it. Webb does a fine job with it, and it’s a good thing, because when I ran a Google search for images, I got mostly air.

National security indeed.

The chapters are very short, and the point of view changes constantly, with Finn and Monica occupying more space than other crew members. Between the shifting viewpoints; Finn’s anxious attempts to find out where he’s going, what his status is, and why he’s being sent away; and Monica’s urgent need to know why her friends are dead, and if anyone else she cares about is next, I am kept on the edge of my seat. Still more deaths follow, and by the halfway mark, my heart is beating a little quicker, and I know better than to let myself read it at bedtime. Fortunately, despite the deaths, which continue of course, there isn’t a lot of gore, and I happily made this book my lunchtime companion. Once I got near the climax, there was no putting it down till the thing was done.

I tend to be leery of books written by military folks, because sometimes there’s a right-wing overtone to the prose that grates against my own values. This isn’t a problem here.  Instead, this is a rock solid opening to a promising new series, and I can’t wait to read the next one. Highly recommended to all that love the genre.

The Power Couple, by Alex Berenson****

Alex Berenson has done it again! I first read his work when I found a galley for The Prisoner, the eleventh in his John Wells series. When I saw that this stand alone thriller was available, I jumped on it. My thanks go to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster for the review copy.  The Power Couple is a fast read and a fun one, and I recommend it to you.

Rebecca (call her Becks) and Brian Unsworth are type A achievers, and both work for the federal government; she is a spy, and he is a hacker. But like so many couples, the similarities that brought them together are getting in their way now. With their children, Kira, who is nineteen, and Tony, who is younger, they take off for Europe to let off steam and spend quality time together. Maybe.

Early in the story, Kira is abducted, and from there forward, the pacing is perfect. Now and then Berenson pulls us back a bit as he shares sketches from their pasts that lead up to this event, but each reminiscence is brief, and the shift between points of view and time periods adds to the suspense. We see their lives through the perspectives of all except Tony, who is a minor character. In the end, Kira is the one we like best. (Trust me.) There’s not a lot of character development, but this isn’t that kind of novel.

I don’t want to give more away, because if I kill any surprises, you won’t enjoy the story as much; what I will say is that even if your own marriage is less than perfect, it is a shining beacon of integrity and affection when contrasted with that of the Unsworths.

This book is for sale now, and just right to take on vacation with you.

Love and Other Crimes, by Sara Paretsky*****

Sara Paretsky is a venerable author, one who—along with the late, great Sue Grafton—reframed the role of women in detective fiction nearly forty years ago. When I saw this collection available for review on Edelweiss, I jumped on it. It’s for sale now, and you should get it and read it—although there’s a caveat coming up that should be considered first.

Sometimes when a favorite writer releases a book of short stories, I find that I’ve already read a lot of them in one form or another. This time, nearly every story is new to me. One forms the basis of a full length book that I read a long time ago and have forgotten much of. Another is a reworked version of the short story “Wildcat,” which I purchased a short time ago. These are the only duplicate stories I can detect, and I am a voracious reader where this author is concerned.  Some of her work was included in Sisters in Crime anthologies, but I haven’t seen them. Not all of them feature the iconic V.I. Warshawski. The signature elements that include social justice issues such as women’s rights, immigration, racism, and the homeless are here in abundance, as one might hope.

My favorite selection is the second, “Miss Bianca,” a mystery in which a little girl saves a research rat and ultimately uncovers a dangerous conspiracy. Paretsky gets the tone of the child’s voice just right, making her bright within the bounds of what a child that age is capable of, and registering the thought processes and perceptions of her protagonist flawlessly.

There’s an historical mystery that involves a Sherlock Holmes retelling, and like all of that ilk, it bored the snot out of me, a first where this writer is concerned. I abandoned it halfway through. The five star rating is unchanged, because the reader can skip this story and still get her money’s worth and then some; also, I am aware that not everyone is as averse to this type of writing as I am.

Another story is set during the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights Movement is center stage. In order to convey the horror of the backlash by some Caucasian Chicagoans during this tumultuous period, the *N* word is included several times. I used the audio version of this book for some of the stories, including this one, and I feel as if it should have a warning sticker of some sort because hearing that word shouted angrily sent a cold finger right up my spine, and I don’t like to think of other readers, especially Black readers, listening to it within the hearing of their children. I don’t deduct anything from my rating, because the author includes a note about its use and her reasons for it at the end of the story; in fact, there is an author’s note at the end of many of these that makes the story more satisfying. But you should know that this word is there, so be ready for it.

When all is said and done, there are few authors that can deliver the way Paretsky can. With the considerations above included, I highly recommend this collection to you.

Agent Sonya, by Ben Macintyre*****

Ben Macintyre is a badass writer of narrative nonfiction about lesser known historical figures from the World War II era. I read and reviewed his blockbuster, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which was published in 2014; when I was invited to do the same for Agent Sonya, I didn’t hesitate. My thanks go to Net Galley and Crown Publishing for the review copy. You can buy this book now.

Her real name was Ursula Kuczynski, and she was a German Jew. Hitler came to full power when she was visiting China, and her entire family fled. Born before the Russian Revolution, she lived until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and so her lifespan encompassed the entire duration of the Soviet Union. An unusually intelligent woman, she was drawn to Communism by the horror of Fascism, and by the misery created by disparate wealth that was right in front of her. The Chinese peasantry were so wretchedly poor that she found dead babies in the street; starving mothers sometimes concluded that they might be able to save one child, but they surely couldn’t save more than that, and they were forced to make a tragic choice. This, in spite of the vast and opulent wealth of the most privileged classes; it was obviously wrong, and there appeared to be only one way around it. She signed on to be a spy for Moscow.

Kuczynski’s career in espionage spanned twenty years and took place in myriad locations across Europe and Asia. She briefly harbored doubts about her career at the time of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, but shortly after its creation, Hitler broke it by attacking the USSR, and the matter became moot. Others around her were apprehended and either jailed or executed, but Ursula always got away clean. As she advanced in the Red Army, ultimately receiving the rank of Colonel, she was given increasingly important work, and her ultimate achievement was in recruiting a scientist that was placed at a high level within the Manhattan Project. More than 500 pages of important documents made their way to Moscow, and because of his defection and Ursula’s skill, the USSR soon had the atomic bomb also.

Though Ursula never considered herself a feminist, she never hesitated when commanding men—a thing few women did at this point in history—and she didn’t let the men in her life shove her around. One of my favorite passages is when she is pregnant at an inconvenient time, and her estranged husband and lover put their heads together to decide what should be done. The two of them agree that Ursula needs an abortion, and Ursula tells them she’s decided to have the baby. Mansplainers never stood a chance with Ursula.

There were many instances when motherhood conflicted with her professional duties, and she had to make a lot of hard choices, but being a mother also provided her with an excellent cover. Sexist assumptions on the part of M15, M16, and other spy-catchers were also responsible for part of her success; how could a mother of three children who baked such excellent scones be a foreign agent? Don’t be silly. And consequently, her husband (whichever one) often drew scrutiny, but nobody ever dreamed that Ursula herself was the high level spy they sought.

The one thing I would have liked to see added to this excellent work is a photo of this woman; perhaps it is included in the final publication, but my digital review copy showed none.* I found photos of her online and understood right away why she was so effective. That disarming smile; that engaging face. Who could help loving her? She looks like everyone’s best friend. She appears incapable of duplicity.

Although the biography itself is serious in nature, there are some hilarious passages involving the nanny, and also an imbecilic British agent that couldn’t find his butt with both hands.

Finally, one of the most fortunate aspects of this biography is that although it is absorbing, it isn’t written like a thriller, and so it’s a great book for bedtime. You already know that Ursula isn’t going to be executed, right? Her story is told in linear fashion, so although it’s a literate, intelligently told story, it’s never confusing. With autumn upon us, I cannot think of a more congenial tale to curl up with on a chilly evening.

This book is highly recommended.

*An alert reader tells me that the final version includes photographs of Ursula and all the major players.

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyFRUcCLNns

The Paladin, by David Ignatius***-****

David Ignatius writes reliably entertaining spy novels, and when I saw that this one was available, I hopped right on it. Big thanks go to Net Galley, Edelweiss, and W.W. Norton for the review copies. It’s for sale now.

Michael Dunne is a career operative for the CIA, and he’s sent to sniff out what appears to be an enemy intelligence service fronting as a news organization. This particular assignment is risky because it’s illegal to run surveillance on journalists, but his boss tells him that he’ll run interference for him, and like a good soldier, he goes. He does what he’s been told to do, and next thing he knows, he’s been arrested for spying on the press, and nobody at the CIA will go to bat for him. What the hell just happened? With his career in tatters, and his family torn asunder, Dunne’s only interest, upon emerging from the year he spends in prison, is vengeance. He wants to find the guy that set him up and ruin him. From there come multiple surprising twists that kept me on the edge of my seat.

My first David Ignatius book was The Director, which I won in a Goodreads giveaway in 2014. I liked it so well that I bought one of his older novels during my annual pilgrimage to Powell’s City of Books that summer. In 2018 I read and reviewed The Quantum Spy, a title perched on my favorites shelf not only for its brilliant pacing and suspense, but also for its insightful take on the challenges faced by Asian Americans within sensitive government positions. The strong impression I received reading it is likely to blame for my being slow on the uptake this time around. I realized when I finished reading The Paladin that it wasn’t as strong as his earlier novels, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge an excellent writer against himself when rating a novel. I initially rated this book five stars because there’s still no other spy novelist whose work I like better than his…except.

There’s a serious problem with his use of gender roles here, one I am surprised not to have noticed from the get-go, because it’s so obvious. Another reviewer opened my eyes and made me ashamed of myself for not homing in on the problem, because it’s not a small one.

There are two women that play important roles in our protagonist’s life. One is the virgin, and the other is the whore. Frankly it is so obnoxious that for any other writer, I would have given a negative rating and a scathing review. I am being measured in my response because I still see this as atypical of this author’s work, and I suspect it’s a slip rather than a true reflection of his own ideas. Then too, protagonist Dunne is portrayed as a hawk with regressive attitudes, and so the value he places on his wife’s virginity when he married her may have been a deliberate choice in developing this flawed character. I surely hope so.

The second female character is the seductress that lures Dunne into a “honeypot trap,” his sole but egregious infidelity that makes his overseas behavior all the more contemptible and costs him his family. Whereas this is a classic element of a great many spy stories, both old and new, it would have been more acceptable if Ignatius had included some other female roles that were more nuanced and that fell into neither category.

It is perhaps a measure of the author’s ability to write tense, believable tales of espionage that I had to have this major flaw pointed out to me. Because of his track record, I give this story 3.5 stars and round up. I will be interested to see what he writes next time.

If you read this one, I recommend doing so critically.