The Devil's in the Details
Why do so many readers love James Rollins’ books?
This one, The Demon Crown, begins on an isolated Hawaiian Island. Two of the heroes, Gray and Seichan, are enjoying the aquamarine water, the warm sun, the sandy beach, and each other. They’ve been fleeing from civilization for months, but when three drone planes filled with killer wasps attack the beach, the world abruptly finds them, and now there’s nowhere to hide.
The deadly prehistoric wasp species hibernated in amber for millions of years. The stinging beasts, a demonic secret that James Smithson took to his grave, were discovered at the end of WWII by a vengeful Japanese businessman. Decades later, the corporate head has finally found a way to unleash the hoard. Now it’s awake, hungry, and ready to repopulate the earth.
With all their experience outrunning trouble, Gray and Seichan quickly realize the dangers posed by the angry, buzzing swarm. Before they can escape into the blue Hawaiian water, Seichan is stung, painfully, letting us experience first hand the agonizing consequences of failure. The Sigma Force director, Painter Crow, and other key team members, Kat, Monk, and Kowolski, join the mission to stop the extraordinary threat before Hawaii is destroyed and the biological weapon is unleashed on the rest of the world.
On the surface, this plot might seem commonplace for the thriller genre, but where Rollins shines is in the details of execution. Exciting action is plentiful, but not gratuitous. Plot twists and turns are craftily concealed. The scientific details are superb, even pulling the reader into what it’s like to be various forms of wasps: drones, soldiers, and queens. The tea drunk by the origami wielding Japanese businessman isn’t just green tea. No, it’s green tea with brown rice. The locations are carefully chosen and drawn with a discerning eye. My favorite scenes take place in the Wieliczka salt mines, in Poland, which Rollins indicates in his ‘Fact or Fiction’ denouement are a UNESCO World Heritage site. From the artful descriptions of the ornate chapel carved from salt, to the varied figurines created over the centuries by miners lucky to ever see the light of day, the place is fascinating. Lastly, the characters are so richly-drawn that every time I read a new Sigma Force novel, I feel like I’m hanging out with old friends, who, like me, grow over time.
“The devil’s in the details,” my mamma always said. As usual, she was right. The Demon Crown is so realistic that readers who’re allergic to wasp stings will want to keep their Epipens handy so they don’t go into anaphylactic shock.
Anyone can publish a book this days, and many do. However, novel writing is an enormous undertaking, fraught with pitfalls. It’s tough to do well. Which explains why readers choose some authors to spend time with over and over again. Quality counts. With the level of mastery Rollins brings to all the little things, it’s clear to see why he’s a #1 NYT Bestselling author.
Steve Berry writes thrillers for thinkers. My kind of books.
I’ve been a Berry fan for years and have read most of the more recent Cotton Malone tales. To see where it all began, I decided to go back to the former agent's roots. A few months ago I read The Templar Legacy, first in the series, and wanted to see how the author would follow it up. The Alexandria Link was next in line.
What a pleasure. This one had it all. High stakes, controversy, multiple villains, larger than life characters, family kidnapping, conflict with the ex-wife, fantastical premise, tight pacing, surprising twists, and even a moral to the story. A multi-faceted gem of a tale.
The non-stop action begins when the ex shows up to tell Malone their son has been kidnapped. Before he can strap on a gun, the bitter divorced couple is attacked, his book shop blown up, and Malone is pulled out of retirement again. The story kicks in from there, eventually finding three threads. First, there’s Malone’s high-wire quest to find the lost Library of Alexandria. Second, his old manager at the Magellan Billet, Stephanie Nelle, nearly dies several times navigating the dangerous political halls of Washington DC. The last thread follows Malone’s pal, Henrik Thorvaldsen, a wealthy Dane who confronts the plot’s mastermind in a picturesque Austrian mansion.
The heartbeat of the story is the first thread, which involves the cat and mouse between Malone and the ruthless mercenary who tricks him into pursuing clues that may lead to the ancient library, and its explosive revelations. Those disclosures would undermine Israel's claim to biblical legitimacy, and turn the world’s three major religions upside down. Worldwide violence would surely ensue. As Malone travels from Copenhagen, to England, Portugal, and into the depths of the Sinai desert, the stakes have never been higher.
As a writer myself, I understand how difficult it is to weave multiple facets of a story together. And I’ve noticed how some authors are strong in one aspect of storytelling, but struggle in other areas. For instance, many thriller writers excel at heart-pounding action, but the characters are cardboard cutouts, which makes it hard for me to get emotionally invested. Or the prose is descriptive and interesting, but the story falls flat because it doesn’t build to a logical conclusion. If you’re a discerning bookworm, you’re nodding your head in agreement. You know how hard it is to find an exciting story, with 3D characters, and a thought-provoking premise.
Look no further, gentle reader. If you’re tired of finding only plain pebbles at the bookstore, check out Steve Berry. He’s a word jeweler, precisely turning words into fine diamonds. His multi-faceted stories catch the light and shine with a brilliance unmatched in the genre.
Richly textured. Riveting. Raw. This mystery is entirely unpredictable.
True to its title, The Shadows We Hide, by Allen Eskens, is one book on the surface, another underneath.
What we see at first glance is an AP reporter, Joe Talbert, fighting with his girlfriend and in trouble at work. When his boss shares a news story about a small town murder, our reporter decides to go see if the body found in the barn was his ne'er-do-well father. Joe uses his investigative skills to dig into the killing, and stirs up a hornet’s nest of trouble. Small towns are rife with secrets and Buckley, Minnesota is no exception. Dangerous skeletons are the only thing Joe finds as he unravels the past, skating on thin ice, his life on the line.
As we read on, we start to see the shadows that lurk below the surface of the action. Dark currents, deadly mixtures of emotions and human weaknesses, swirl about Joe from the beginning, eventually pulling him under. He fights for air, to do the right thing, but the stakes are high. If he doesn’t give up his source for that article at work, he’ll lose his job. If he reopens contact with his formerly drug-addicted mother, will she, or another bad boyfriend, kill Joe’s autistic brother? If the dead man, a bona fide ass hated by the entire town, is his father, did the sour apple fall far from the tree? And when Joe gets caught in the flow, will it cost him the love of his life?
I’ve enjoyed Eskens’ work since his debut novel, The Life We Bury, introduced us to Joe Talbert. The author’s stories are unpredictable, gritty, well-crafted, and explore the human condition. Those are all rare qualities, hard to do well. And with this story, Eskens continues to excel.
If you want a multi-textured detective tale, full of surprises, definitely put this one on your Christmas list.
Poignant. Intensely personal. Moving and unforgettable.
Amsterdam is a gorgeous city, arguably one of Europe’s most iconic, with its canals, bridges, distinct architecture, coffee shops, and public art. As Wienir artfully describes, a late night bicycle pedal through the city becomes a dazzling experience: “Biking through any European city in the still of night is transcendent, doing so in Amsterdam is divine.” But there’s a part of the city, the Red Light District, that is pretty on the surface, but filled with ugliness once you delve deeper.
Centuries old, the haunting red lights of the district illuminate women selling their soft bodies for hard currency behind curtained glass walls. This memoir takes the reader on a journey to the other side of those walls, into the dark side of beauty.
In this age of the #MeToo movement, the Bill Cosby sentencing, and the Kavanaugh hearings, if prostitution freaks you out, I get it. I, too, find the subject matter of the world’s oldest profession upsetting.
But this award-winning tale is about so much more than that. It’s about love, redemption, connection. About living in the moment, about making a difference. So read it anyway.
I’m glad I did. The book won this year's Hollywood Book Festival, and I figured there was something special about it. I had traveled to Europe ten years before the author, and imagined his adventures outside of the district would remind me of a time when I carried my only worldly possessions on my back, and saw the world through fresh, innocent eyes. That was a pivotal time for me and I knew I’d enjoy a walk down cobblestoned European memory lane. However, although I’d visited Amsterdam several times, the district was never part of the itinerary. Although it’s not exactly legal, the Dutch are more upfront about the profession. I was curious. What pulls a woman into prostitution? What is it like? Does she enter of her own free will? Is it as horrible as it sounds? Can she ever leave?
The author is drawn to the district, moth to the flame style. While in Amsterdam for an abroad semester of law school, he wants to meet a working woman, and tell her story. It turns out to be far more difficult than he imagined. None of the women want to have anything to do with him. He won’t have sex with them, or give them money, so they insult him and slam doors in his face.
After countless rejections on the rain-drenched streets of the district, he finally connects with a stunning woman named “Emma”, and she haltingly agrees to tell him her tale. But it isn't easy for her to open up. Years of abuse and distrust have colored her perspective, and she stands him up, cuts short their appointments, and doesn't return his calls. When she does eventually agree to a meeting at her home, Wienir even wonders if she could be setting him up for some sort of dangerous altercation with a boyfriend or pimp.
Finally, on the eve of his departure back to America, sitting on a couch in her apartment, Emma shares what it’s like, working under the ghostly red lights every night. It’s a gut-wrenching, sorrowful conversation. Cue the thunder, lightning, and downpour. Even your umbrella won't save you now.
But it turns out there's much more to Emma and her story than meets the eye. No spoilers here. Let's just say that her story is intense and unforgettable. Although the author does a striking job illustrating scenes of the city, it's Emma who lights up the tale, stealing the show.
If you're open to learning about the sexual underbelly of Europe, and hearing the occasional graphic description, Emma's account, once heard, can't be unheard. You'll walk away with your heart not broken, but broken open, seeing that love glows in even in the darkest corners. As Wienir quotes Anne Frank, “I don’t think of all the misery, but all the beauty that still remains.”
You can purchase Amsterdam Exposed by clicking the image above.
Pendulum, by Adam Hamdy, is for those who like their coffee black and their thrillers blacker. No cream or sugar in this tale, it describes the non-stop, murderous pursuit of John Wallace by a killer who hangs his victims and posts artificial suicide notes to hide his tracks.
The adrenaline fueled pace begins when Wallace wakes up with a noose around his neck, and ratchets up from there. Hamdy paints a bleak portrait of a man, crushed by life’s disappointments, who is thrust into unimaginable horror and a flight for his life. It took me awhile to warm up to Wallace, but eventually, his grief, determination, and grit got under my skin and I found myself rooting for him as he tries to figure out why he’s being hunted. And it’s not just Wallace – he discovers a bloody trail of others who have been victims of murder, framed to look like a suicide. But what’s the connection? Through the icy winter streets of London and New York, Wallace follows a cold trail of those who weren’t as lucky when the hangman came calling and the tan noose tightened around pale skin.
It’s rare, the novel that has me in that stomach-clenched, have-to-turn-the-pages space, but like the noose, this story wound its way into my gut and pulled tight. Warning: it’s an R-rated tale, with sex and plenty of violence. I chose the bonus Booktrack version of the audiobook, and while I enjoyed the narrator’s British accent, I’m still trying to decide if I liked all the extra sound effects. At times they pulled me out of the story, and other times set the mood, pulling me deeper into the depths of mankind’s degeneracy. Despite the depravity, It’s a well-written, brilliantly conceived story, with more than its share of unexpected twists. Personally, I’m a fan of dark chocolate, so enjoyed the descent. Dark is the other side of light’s coin. Death reminds me of life’s fleeting nature, and makes me appreciate the moments when the sun shines on my face through filtered leaves.
Bottom line, if black is how you like it, you’ll savor every drop and order up the next in the series.
Roll over Agatha, there’s a new mystery writer vying for your crown.
Picture this: the WWI peace treaty is about to be signed, soldiers have flooded home to England's shores and you, a female British Secret Service agent, have been released back to your upper-class life of leisure. The drinking and dancing leave a sour taste in your mouth though, because your young husband was killed in the trenches, and the emotional knife wound in your breast still aches with his loss.
A gilded invitation to attend a weekend engagement fest with your husband's fellow officers at first doesn't sound appealing. But when a secretive letter threatens to reveal your departed sweetheart as a traitor unless you attend, you decide to drive his Pierce Arrow down to the pier where the party yacht awaits.
Now you find yourself on an isolated island, inside a dark, rain-soaked castle, trying to enjoy yourself while you figure out who sent that annoying missive. It could even be a harmless prank. But then one dead body shows up, and soon, another. Why have the victims been killed? Could your husband have been a traitor after all? Will you be the next prey? And, in spite of your growing attraction to him, could the handsome Lord Ryde be the mastermind behind it all?
In the spirit of the old grande dames of Mystery, Huber delivers a rich and intriguing whodunit, with many familiar elements, but a style all her own. I particularly enjoyed the wind-whipped atmosphere of the castle, the deceitful twists, and the historical tidbits related to the war. My favorite though, was imagining, for a time, that I was an aristocratic spy, trying to track down a killer and clear my husband's good name.
You can pick up the story on Amazon here. Her second book in the series, Treacherous is The Night, is now available for pre-order.
Some books you can't put down. Some linger with you for days, like that tender kiss from your sweetheart you can't get out of your mind.
The President is Missing, by Bill Clinton and James Patterson, had both of those qualities for me, but it also had that elusive 'something extra'.
It is an unconventional thriller. No blood or dead body on page one. The hero doesn't worship his gun. The climax has no explosion. Don't get me wrong, there is action and suspense, the story just takes a while to get moving. Once it gets going though, the roller coaster delivers highs, lows, and curves. The ending is quite satisfying; I even got a little misty-eyed.
What makes this story unique and compelling, providing that extra element, is that it's about a president, written by a president. Against our current political backdrop, it calls for unification and a reminder that we share a common humanity and sometimes, to do the right thing, we have to cross the political Grand Canyon.
Politics today are almost as much a blood sport as Roman gladiator fighting. That's dangerous to our republic, as there are plenty of governments who don't see liberty, freedom, and justice for all as ideals. As this timely story illustrates, those foundations are under attack, and we Americans would be wise to save our ire for those who want to destroy our democracy, rather than each other.
Read the book. It'll keep you up at night and make you dream of a better day.
For those who appreciate ancient mysteries, this creative thriller, set in a chaotic near future, tells the tale of a healer, her scorned lover, and her reluctant new love interest, a sea captain. Three intriguing characters, each with unique voices, pains, and perspectives.
The heroes are chased by mercenaries, terrorists, Amazons, and tyrants through a variety of memorable Greek settings. Stamey toys with the expected, painting fresh brush strokes on the troubled canvas that is our planet today.
Her themes relating to connection, redemption, and balance provide intelligent insights that may carry the reader on adventures into their own psyches.
The action scenes, played out against the backdrop of crystal Mediterranean waters, the pine tang of retsina, dusty streets and whitewashed villas, and ancient mountain ruins, will stick to my skin like a salty breeze.
This enjoyable read is a thought-provoking, page-turning escape.
International award-winning thriller author.