Quick Review: WHILE JUSTICE SLEEPS by Stacey Abrams (Harper/Doubleday)

AbramsS-WhileJusticeSleepsUKA twisty political thriller, set in the halls of the Supreme Court and corridors of power in DC

An explosive secret

When legendary Washington judge Justice Wynn falls into a coma and puts his law clerk, Avery, in control, Avery’s world is turned upside down. Because Justice Wynn had a secret. One that nobody wants to come out…

A life in the balance

As Wynn lies in hospital, Avery begins to unravel a sequence of clues, and realizes the puzzle will lead her directly into danger.

A showdown that will change everything

But how high a price can you put on the truth? And is Avery brave enough to expose the White House itself?

I’ve been looking forward to reading this ever since it was announced. I was lucky enough to get an advance review copy, and dove in as soon as I could. I’m very glad to report that it is great: an excellent example of the genre, well-written and gripping. Continue reading

Quick Review: GREAT CIRCLE by Maggie Shipstead (Knopf)

ShipsteadM-GreatCircleUSA sweeping, engaging story of adventure, determination, and the ties that bind

An unforgettable story of a daredevil female aviator determined to chart her own course in life, at any cost…

After being rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner in 1914, Marian and Jamie Graves are raised by their dissolute uncle in Missoula, Montana. There — after encountering a pair of barnstorming pilots passing through town in beat-up biplanes–Marian commences her lifelong love affair with flight. At fourteen she drops out of school and finds an unexpected and dangerous patron in a wealthy bootlegger who provides a plane and subsidizes her lessons, an arrangement that will haunt her for the rest of her life, even as it allows her to fulfill her destiny: circumnavigating the globe by flying over the North and South Poles.

A century later, Hadley Baxter is cast to play Marian in a film that centers on Marian’s disappearance in Antarctica. Vibrant, canny, disgusted with the claustrophobia of Hollywood, Hadley is eager to redefine herself after a romantic film franchise has imprisoned her in the grip of cult celebrity. Her immersion into the character of Marian unfolds, thrillingly, alongside Marian’s own story, as the two women’s fates — and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different geographies and times — collide.

This is the first novel I’ve read by Maggie Shipstead, and it turned out to be an excellent one to begin with. It’s mostly the story of Marian Graves, and the people who fall in and out of her life, and her (successful) pursuit of a career as a female aviator. It is also the story of Hadley Baxter, an actress in the present day who finds herself cast in a biopic of Marian’s life. Alternating between the two stories, it’s a sweeping, engaging, and immersive novel. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: IN THE COMPANY OF KILLERS by Bryan Christy (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

ChristyB-InTheCompanyOfKillersUSIn geopolitics and international crime, everything is connected…

Tom Klay, an investigative reporter leading a double life as a CIA spy, discovers that he has been weaponized in a global game of espionage pitting him against one of the world’s most ruthless men.

Tom Klay is a celebrated investigative wildlife reporter for the esteemed magazine The Sovereign. But Klay is not just a journalist. His reporting is cover for an even more dangerous job: CIA agent. Klay’s press credentials make him a perfect spy — able to travel the globe, engage both politicians and warlords, and openly record what he sees. When he needs help, the Agency provides it to him, and asks little in return. But while on assignment in Kenya, Klay is attacked and his closest friend is murdered. Soon Klay’s carefully constructed double life unravels as his ambition turns to revenge.

The CIA has an answer. Klay is offered a devil’s bargain to capture the man who killed his friend by infiltrating the offices of the woman he once loved, South Africa’s special prosecutor, Hungry Khoza. But Klay soon discovers that he and Hungry are part of a larger, more lethal game — one that involves a ruthless mercenary and a global superpower. The deeper he digs, the more Klay realizes that everything he thought he knew about his work may have been a lie, and his sworn enemy may be his only ally. In this riveting, timely thriller, the lines between good and evil blur, and absolutely nothing is as it seems.

I’m always on the look-out for new international thrillers, so when I first spotted Bryan Christy’s In The Company of Killers in the publisher’s catalogue, the synopsis caught my attention. Christy’s done a very good job of drawing on his own experiences working for National Geographic, and blending it with an engaging and enjoyable espionage story — one that brings in many contemporary international and domestic political issues. I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: THE LAST SEASON by Phil Jackson (Penguin)

JacksonP-LastSeasonUSPBPhil Jackson’s memoir for the final year of his (first) stint as Lakers coach

An inside look at the season that proved to be the final ride of a truly great dynasty — Kobe Bryant, Shaq, and the LA Lakers

For the countless basketball fans who were spellbound by the Los Angeles Lakers’ 2003-2004 high-wire act, this book is a rare and phenomenal treat. In The Last Season, Lakers coach Phil Jackson draws on his trademark honesty and insight to tell the whole story of the season that proved to be the final ride of a truly great dynasty. From the signing of future Hall-of-Famers Karl Malone and Gary Payton to the Kobe Bryant rape case/media circus, this is a riveting tale of clashing egos, public feuds, contract disputes, and team meltdowns that only a coach, and a writer, of Jackson’s candor, experience, and ability could tell. Full of tremendous human drama and offering lessons on coaching and on life, this is a book that no sports fan can possibly pass up.

I recently read Jeff Pearlman’s excellent, entertaining Three-Ring Circus: an account of the LA Lakers’ three-championship run in the early 2000s. Coached by Phil Jackson and led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant, the team was dominant, impressive to watch, and dysfunctional. Pearlman’s book is a warts-and-all, humorous examination of the team and the characters that comprised it. I wanted to read more about the team and the NBA of that time, so I picked up Jackson’s memoir of his the 2003-4 season. What I found was an interesting, informative, and engaging read. Continue reading

Quick Review: EVERYTHING NOW by Rosecrans Baldwin (MCD)

BaldwinR-EverythingNowUSLessons from the city-state of Los Angeles

America is obsessed with Los Angeles. And America has been thinking about Los Angeles all wrong, for decades, on repeat. Los Angeles is not just the place where the American dream hits the Pacific. (It has its own dreams.) Not just the vanishing point of America’s western drive. (It has its own compass.) Functionally, aesthetically, mythologically, even technologically, an independent territory, defined less by distinct borders than by an aura of autonomy and a sense of unfurling destiny — this is the city-state of Los Angeles.

Deeply reported and researched, provocatively argued, and eloquently written, Rosecrans Baldwin’s Everything Now approaches the metropolis from unexpected angles, nimbly interleaving his own voice with a chorus of others, from canonical L.A. literature to everyday citizens. Here, Octavia E. Butler and Joan Didion are in conversation with activists and astronauts, vampires and veterans. Baldwin records the stories of countless Angelenos, discovering people both upended and reborn: by disasters natural and economic, following gospels of wealth or self-help or personal destiny. The result is a story of a kaleidoscopic, vibrant nation unto itself — vastly more than its many, many parts.

Baldwin’s concept of the city-state allows us, finally, to grasp a place — Los Angeles — whose idiosyncrasies both magnify those of America, and are so fully its own. Here, space and time don’t quite work the same as they do elsewhere, and contradictions are as stark as southern California’s natural environment. Perhaps no better place exists to watch the United States’s past, and its possible futures, play themselves out.

Welcome to Los Angeles, the Great American City-State.

It’s not just America that’s obsessed with Los Angeles. I’ve long been fascinated by the city (even though I’m not sure I’d like to live there). It’s one of my favourite fiction locations, and its diverse and fragmented nature allows for incredible variation in the novels, TV series and movies set within it. In Everything Now, Baldwin does a very good job of showing us the city from a number of different angles — some familiar, some new, all interesting. An interesting and engaging journey through various facets of Los Angeles, I enjoyed this. Continue reading

Very Quick Review: THE FIRST OMEGA by Megan O’Keefe (Orbit)

What happens when a corporate hunter is deemed obsolete…?

It doesn’t matter what you call her. Riley. Burner. She forgot her name long ago. But if you steal from the supply lines crossing the wasteland, her face is the last one you’ll see.

She is the force of nature that keeps the balance in the hot arid desert. Keep to yourself and she’ll leave you well enough alone. But it’s when you try to take more than you can chew that her employers notice and send her off to restore the balance.

Then she gets the latest call. A supply truck knocked over too cleanly. Too precise. And the bodies scattering the wreckage weren’t killed by her normal prey of scavengers. These bodies are already rotting hours after the attack.

Cowering in the corner of the wreckage is a young girl. A girl that shouldn’t be there. A girl with violently blue eyes. Just like hers.

The First Omega is a new, stand-alone novella from the author of (most recently) the acclaimed Protectorate sci-fi series. When it was first announced, the description that this was like “Mad Max meets X-Men” caught my attention. A bleak picture of a blasted future, one with a Western feel, it is a story of nature-vs-nurture, and how to face obsolescence. I rather enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: RED WIDOW by Alma Katsu (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)

When you work in a building of smoke & mirrors, everyone and everything should be questioned…

The story of two women CIA agents whose paths become intertwined around a threat to the Russia Division – one that’s coming from inside the agency.

Lyndsey Duncan worries her career with the CIA might be over. After lines are crossed with another intelligence agent during an assignment, she is sent home to Washington on administrative leave. So when a former colleague — now Chief of the Russia Division — recruits her for an internal investigation, she jumps at the chance to prove herself. Lyndsey was once a top handler in the Moscow Field Station, where she was known as the “human lie detector” and praised for recruiting some of the most senior Russian officials. But now, three Russian assets have been exposed — including one of her own — and the CIA is convinced there’s a mole in the department. With years of work in question and lives on the line, Lyndsey is thrown back into life at the agency, this time tracing the steps of those closest to her.

Meanwhile, fellow agent Theresa Warner can’t avoid the spotlight. She is the infamous “Red Widow,” the wife of a former director killed in the field under mysterious circumstances. With her husband’s legacy shadowing her every move, Theresa is a fixture of the Russia Division, and as she and Lyndsey strike up an unusual friendship, her knowledge proves invaluable. But as Lyndsey uncovers a surprising connection to Theresa that could answer all of her questions, she unearths a terrifying web of secrets within the department, if only she is willing to unravel it…

I haven’t read all of Katsu’s previous works, but as a long-time lover for espionage fiction, I knew I had to read this as soon as I could. I’m very glad to report that it is an engaging, twisty espionage novel set in the halls of Langley and D.C. I enjoyed this a lot. Continue reading

Quick Review: THREE-RING CIRCUS by Jeff Pearlman (HMH)

PearlmanJ-ThreeRingCircusUSAn amusing, irreverent account of the Lakers of Kobe, Shaq, and Phil Jackson

The story of the Lakers dynasty from 1996 through 2004, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal combined — and collided — to help bring the Lakers three straight championships and restore the franchise as a powerhouse 

In the history of modern sport, there have never been two high-level teammates who loathed each other the way Shaquille O’Neal loathed Kobe Bryant, and Kobe Bryant loathed Shaquille O’Neal. From public sniping and sparring, to physical altercations and the repeated threats of trade, it was warfare. And yet, despite eight years of infighting and hostility, by turns mediated and encouraged by coach Phil Jackson, the Shaq-Kobe duo resulted in one of the greatest dynasties in NBA history. Together, the two led the Lakers to three straight championships and returned glory and excitement to Los Angeles.

I’m not sure I can remember a time when I didn’t know the names “Kobe Bryant” and, especially, “Shaquille O’Neal”. This despite not having access to NBA games (in person or on TV) until Kobe’s final year in the League, and after Shaq had retired. I knew they’d won the championship together at least twice, but that was it. When Pearlman’s Three-Ring Circus popped up on my radar, I knew I had to read it. And I’m very glad I did: it’s a detailed, irreverent and (seemingly) balanced account of the tense years leading up to and including the Lakers’ three-peat. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: MARY JANE by Jessica Anya Blau (Custom House)

BlauJA-MaryJaneUSA young woman finds herself during a momentous summer

In 1970s Baltimore, fourteen-year-old Mary Jane loves cooking with her mother, singing in her church choir, and enjoying her family’s subscription to the Broadway Showtunes of the Month record club. Shy, quiet, and bookish, she’s glad when she lands a summer job as a nanny for the daughter of a local doctor. A respectable job, Mary Jane’s mother says. In a respectable house.

The house may look respectable on the outside, but inside it’s a literal and figurative mess: clutter on every surface, Impeachment: Now More Than Ever bumper stickers on the doors, cereal and takeout for dinner. And even more troublesome (were Mary Jane’s mother to know, which she does not): the doctor is a psychiatrist who has cleared his summer for one important job — helping a famous rock star dry out. A week after Mary Jane starts, the rock star and his movie star wife move in.

Over the course of the summer, Mary Jane introduces her new household to crisply ironed clothes and a family dinner schedule, and has a front-row seat to a liberal world of sex, drugs, and rock and roll (not to mention group therapy). Caught between the lifestyle she’s always known and the future she’s only just realized is possible, Mary Jane will arrive at September with a new idea about what she wants out of life, and what kind of person she’s going to be.

This novel is pitched as “Almost Famous meets Daisy Jones and the Six” — one of my favourite movies, and one of my favourite recent novels. So, of course, my interest was piqued. After finishing it, I think it’s a pretty apt comparison, but this novel stands very much on its own, too. Mary Jane is a warm-hearted, well-written story of Mary Jane’s coming-of-age in 1970s Baltimore, during a momentous summer. I really enjoyed it. Continue reading

Quick Review: WINDHALL by Ava Barry (Pegasus Books)

BarryA-WindhallUSAn intriguing, well-written mystery about the long tail of a Golden Age Hollywood murder

An investigative journalist in modern Los Angeles attempts to solve the Golden Age murder of a Hollywood starlet.

1940s Hollywood was an era of decadence and director Theodore Langley was its king. Paired with Eleanor Hayes as his lead actress, Theo ruled the Golden Age of Hollywood. That ended when Eleanor’s mangled body was discovered in Theo’s rose garden and he was charged with her murder. The case was thrown out before it went to trial and Theo fled L.A., leaving his crawling estate, Windhall, to fall into ruin. He hasn’t been seen since.

Decades later, investigative journalist Max Hailey, raised by his gran on stories of old Hollywood, is sure that if he could meet Theo, he could prove once and for all that the famed director killed his leading lady. When a copycat murder takes place near Windhall, the long reclusive Theo returns to L.A., and it seems Hailey finally has his chance.

When Hailey gets his hands on Theo’s long-missing journals, he reads about Eleanor’s stalkers and her role in Theo’s final film, The Last Train to Avalon, a film so controversial it was never released to the public. In the months leading up to her death, something had left her so terrified she stopped coming to work. The more Hailey learns about Avalon, the more convinced he becomes that the film could tell him who killed Eleanor and why she had to die. But the implications of Avalon reach far beyond Eleanor’s murder, and Hailey must race to piece together the murders of the past and present before it’s too late.

What really happened to Eleanor Hayes, all those years ago at Theodore Langley’s party? Was she murdered? And by whom? Has Langley got away with murder for all these years? When the case is thrust back into the spotlight, journalist Max Hailey dig deeper than anyone else ever has to get to the truth. Windhall is an interesting, engaging, and enjoyable mystery novel set in old and contemporary Los Angeles. I really enjoyed this. Continue reading