The Quantum Spy, by David Ignatius*****

“America is a country where race matters. The more people say they are, what, color-blind, the more it is a lie.”

thequantumspyDavid Ignatius writes gripping spy fiction, and this is his best work.  The basis of this one is the longstanding intelligence war between the CIA and its Chinese counterpart; the story is fictional, but his careful research ensures that this could have happened.  Lucky me, I read it free thanks to Edelweiss and W.W. Norton and Company Publishers. This book will be available to the public tomorrow, November 7, 2017.

Harris Chang is Chinese-American, raised to respect the red, white and blue.  He works for the CIA, and has been sent to investigate a leak in a quantum research lab. As the USA and China struggle to achieve technological dominance, tensions rise. Chang wonders if he has been chosen to investigate based on his ethnicity, since he knows very little about China or even his own family tree; why yes he has. The Chinese expect to be able to turn him because of it, and over the course of time, his bosses begin to suspect that it’s happened.  Harris is loyal, and he chafes at the unfairness of his treatment, but is determined to succeed. After all, what could prove his loyalty more clearly than to perform above the standard to which most of the Agency’s employees are held?

The setting changes constantly as spies chase other spies all over the world, but the story takes place primarily in Arlington, Virginia and in Singapore. There are also some especially tense, intriguing scenes set in Mexico, and I love the side details about Trotsky’s house, which is now a museum.

Ignatius dumbs down nothing for anyone, and so the reader should have literacy skills that are sharp and ready. Don’t read this one after you take your sleeping pill. Trust me.

The story can be read—and mostly will be, I think—as an enjoyable bit of escapism. With current events so intense, we all need some of that, and it’s what I expected when I requested the DRC. But I find it much more rewarding because of the racial subtext. It’s an area that’s important to me, and at first my back was up when I saw hints of it without knowing what the writer’s intentions were. So many are astonishingly clueless, or worse, when it comes to this aspect of fiction. But as I saw where he was taking it, I had to completely reevaluate my opinion. I would love to be surprised in exactly this way more frequently.

The ending made me want to stand up and cheer.

Highly recommended to those that love strong thrillers, and even more so for those that also cherish civil rights in the USA.

 

The Prisoner, by Alex Berenson****

theprisoner Berenson has written a whole series of espionage thrillers featuring John Wells, a CIA operative fighting al Qaeda. I was unaware of this when I requested a DRC from Net Galley and Putnam Penguin, but I find it stands up quite nicely as a stand-alone novel. Would I have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the others first? We will never know.  However, if you’d like to read this tightly woven thriller either in sequence or singly, it will be available January 31, 2017.

To enjoy an espionage thriller, one has to buy the premise, namely that the CIA is a heroic organization, or at least has a segment of good guys that are fighting terrorism to keep innocent civilians safe. This is a premise I buy cheerfully for the sake of a good yarn; I do it when I read crime fiction in which the cops are morally righteous, or at least more good than bad, so why not here. In exchange, I got to enjoy an intense, interesting thriller that is different from a lot of the other fiction I read, and novelty is a meaningful selling point when one spends several hours daily with one’s nose in a book.

This is a literate read. In a world of dumbed-down fiction that plays to the lowest common denominator, I have come to value writers that have a strong vocabulary and aren’t afraid to use it. I also learned some things about the Middle East and how the USA operates there, including a few new specialized terms and some information about the cultures featured in that part of the world. Of course, this is fiction and it could also be true that Berenson made it all up, but his past includes work as a war correspondent in Iraq, and so perhaps this is what gives the setting its authenticity.

Our premise is that there is a mole at a high level inside of the CIA. John Wells has been feeling the itch to travel, impatient with his wife’s demand for more family time and suffocated by the dull sameness of everyday life in the States. He volunteers to return to the Mid-East and pose as an al Qaeda recruit so that he can be tossed into a Bulgarian prison and cozy up to the high-up operative that is interned there.

I blanched slightly at this; I have read a couple of former CIA employees’ memoirs, and I had to swallow hard to pretend that this guy would actually do this thing. But when we read thrillers, whether it’s crime, mystery, or a spy story, we don’t really want to read about tedium and paper pushing; we want excitement. Once I bought the premise, I was wedded to the narrative.

The other key characters here are Shafer, the CIA officer Wells reports to and who is also hunting for the mole; and the mole, whose name I can’t tell you without ruining the book.At first I thought I was seeing shallow characterization, but Wells’ character is developed in a way that is so subtle that the reader may not realize it’s occurred. Gradually we come to know who Wells is, how he thinks, how he will respond. On the other hand, our mole is a loser and remains a caricature throughout.

Every significant character here is male, but from what little I know, that’s consistent with the CIA, especially among the highest officers, a glass ceiling that’s hard to crack, so Berenson is merely reflecting US intelligence as it actually is.

The plot’s arc is a little different than one might usually expect.  The hook at the start is arresting, and I expected it to perhaps ratchet up, up, up from there. Instead, the pace flagged once we were about 15 percent of the way in, and then gradually began to ascend again. By the time I was 70 percent of the way in, I understood that the next time I picked it up, I would have to finish it.

When we hit the climax, set in France, I threw off the quilt and sat up. The pulse-pounding denouement was inconsistent with lying supine and I read the last 15 percent of the book sitting up and leaning forward.

This story is guaranteed to spike your adrenaline and chase away the winter blahs. Recommended to those that enjoy espionage thrillers.

The God’s Eye View, by Barry Eisler**

thegodseyeviewComing out of the gates, this novel seemed really strong. The premise is that Evelyn Gallagher, a CIA employee, sees an abuse of power, and it’s a chase to the end to see whether the NSA director, a man who knows no moral limits, will have her terminated before she can notify someone that can stop him. I received this DRC free from Net Galley and Thomas and Mercer in exchange for an honest review. It is now available for purchase.

At about the thirty percent mark, the tension that the story needs to hold the reader’s attention is derailed by trite plot elements. We’ve seen all of this before. Take an old school spy story, throw Edward Snowden’s name around a lot, add some high tech elements that show how the US government compromises everyone’s privacy, and it’s a story out of a can. It is old material dressed up to look new, and if you haven’t read many spy novels, it might work for you.

The most obviously overworked device is the pairing of Manus and Delgado. Think of them as good cop and bad cop, or since they aren’t actually police, we can call them the good-bad-guy and the bad-bad-guy. For the first, there is a sympathetic back story and elements that suggest he might be redeemable. For the latter, over the top, nasty personal habits partner with sociopathic behaviors and thoughts to make him utter scum. Though a trifle deflated when I spotted it, I still wanted to enjoy the story, and was hoping to see some things that would permit me to call this a 3.5 star story, maybe round it up to 4 stars.

Not so much.

Evelyn, also called Evie, tricks men into doing stupid things by showing her cleavage and by acting helpless.

And the prose. “She knows too much.”

Seriously?

And try this one: “I’m your best friend right now…or your worst nightmare.”

At this point, I could not finish the book quickly enough. Get it over with so I can review it and move on.

We move on through vivid rape scenes and gratuitous violence, and the hackneyed prose factory rages on. I moaned when I came to the mention of a “disgruntled former employee” and of course, what kind of war hero isn’t described as “decorated”? Isn’t that sort of the definition of a….?

Never mind.

I never, never, never review a book without reading every word of the last ten percent, even if I have done some skimming first. Sometimes the ending is strong enough that what looked like bad writing turns out to be a clever device that is included for a hidden purpose. Sometimes several disparate threads get pulled together so cleanly and deftly that in justice, I am required to add stars back onto the rating. And so I finished this novel, but none of those things happened.

Author Barry Eisler is a former CIA employee (disgruntled?) who is on a mission to demonstrate how long the reach of government has become. He provides a lot of internet sources to back the technology in his fiction. But when all is said and done, I would probably be happier reading nonfiction by Eisler…or maybe fiction by someone else.

A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, by Ben Macintyre *****

Recently released; reblogging!

Seattle Book Mama

A Spy Among Us Kim Philby     This was a real page-turner, which says a lot, given that I already knew how it would end. I read the historical fiction version by another author and was fascinated by it, but also wondered what was fact and what was invented. Macintyre take his job so seriously that 25% of the book is citations. You KNOW he’s not making this up!

A great big thank you goes to Net Galley and Crown Publishers for the free read; that said, yes, this one is worth buying. I haven’t read anything else by Macintyre, but now that I have seen what he can do, he’ll be on my to-read list!

Kim Philby is considered by many to have been the world’s greatest spy. Perhaps the phrase should be “best known spy”, since the best spies are never found out. But that’s a digression. The fact is that this British-born, upper-class…

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The Director, by David Ignatius *****

Wow! That was a really fun ride. A great big thank you to the Goodreads First Reads program and the publisher for a free look-see.

Imagine, if you will, that the CIA has a new chief, and he’s a good guy who wants to do the right thing. How much chaos might this create?

I am, of course, not a fan of the CIA, so I have to play make-believe to enjoy the premise. My heroes are Marx and Engels; my teenager’s hero is Edward Snowden. And in this lovely bit of spy-craft by the experienced David Ignatius, the CIA wants to prevent another Snowden from occurring. See, the “moles” of yesteryear are no longer an issue, since the Soviet block fell apart and China is no longer red; now the issue is worms. In this story, there’s a really juicy one, and it’s “inside”. And I know I can’t quote a galley extensively, but the phrase “freedom addicts” made me squawk with laughter.

That’s it. That’s all I’m going to tell you. If this sounds as hilarious to you as it did to me, you really ought to go get your own copy. I haven’t had this much fun in a long time!