Random Review: Hazardous Duty by W.E.B. Griffin

This review contains mild spoilers.

Book Name: Hazardous Duty
Author: W.E.B. Griffin (with William E. Butterworth IV)
Series: #8 in the ongoing “Presidential Agent” series
Format(s): Hardcover/Mass market paperback/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Thriller
Original Release Date: December 31, 2013

Rating: 3/10

Before I started my run through all of the series written by W.E.B. Griffin that I hadn’t read yet the latest “new” book of his I’d read was Empire and Honor, which was the latest in the “Honor Bound” series set during World War Two in South America. That book was a major disappointment because in its 670-odd pages there was a significant amount of flashback scenes that made it just about half of a new book. I was hoping in Hazardous Duty Griffin and his son, who has obviously taken over writing all the books, would get back to what made all the Griffin books so good.

They didn’t. Instead what we have in Hazardous Duty is a book where there is virtually no hazardous duty. What the whole book breaks down to is main protagonist, Colonel Charley Castillo, doing nothing but spending tax dollars dodging his assignments. Literally nothing else happens that matters in the book. I rated it a three out of ten instead of lower because what is there, a touch of political intrigue and an interesting history lesson that could have taken ten pages but instead lasts about a quarter of the book, was written rather well. It just goes to show that this could have been a good book had Griffin and Butterworth bothered to try to write one.

Usually the cover of a book is at least marginally representative of something in the plot, but I can’t recall a single scene where that cover image would come into play. Reading the back of the book a reader would note that because the story allegedly includes Somali pirates that type of boat would likely be used by the good guys. Only there’s hardly anything about Somali pirates in Hazardous Duty. The blurb on the back also mentions Mexican drug cartels. Not too many of those in the story either.

There is an author’s note at the end by Griffin saying he wrote the book is the same style as his “M*A*S*H*” books. I think that note was written just to excuse how bad the book is because not once did the thought of this being anything like his “M*A*S*H*” books came to my mind. Hazardous Duty is nothing but a plotless money-grab of a novel. Griffin should be embarrassed his name is associated with the book.

If you’re someone that needs to read every single book of an author or a series then I’d say go ahead and buy the book second-hand somewhere to save some money. If you’re just looking for something good to read, look elsewhere.

Random Review: Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect by Mark Greaney

This review contains no spoilers.

Book Name: Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect
Author: Mark Greaney
Series: #10 in the ongoing series featuring “Jack Ryan”
Publisher(s): Putnam Adult
Format(s): Hardcover/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Thriller
Release Date: December 2, 2014

Rating: 9/10

Officially Tom Clancy Full Force and Effect is Mark Greaney’s second solo effort in the “Jack Ryan” universe created by Tom Clancy, but after reading Support and Defend (you can see my review of the book right here) and now Full Force and Effect something is becoming apparent: Greaney likely wrote most of the last few “Jack Ryan” books on his own. It would be easy to mimic Clancy’s style in a book that doesn’t contain all the main players like Support and Defend did, but to write so similarly to the style Clancy used recently after no Clancy books for years and to hit the nail on the head so cleanly one can only conclude that the last three “Jack Ryan” novels, Locked On, Threat Vector, and Command Authority shouldn’t be listed as “with” Mark Greaney but instead “by” Mark Greaney.

And as a huge Clancy fan, I’m OK with that.

Full Force and Effect is a solid story, with all the plot twists and well written suspense sequences that readers expect from the series. The “in your face” bad guys are North Korean, but like Clancy before him Greaney has a “behind the scenes” guy that turns out to be the real issue for the good guys. Like Greaney did in Support and Defend none of the bad guys are “super villains”. Every one of them does things logically for their own reasons and are totally believable. I’m a big fan of antagonists doing things that make sense, and so far Greaney is batting 1.000 on that.

I did originally have an issue with the way Greaney portrayed the John Clark character in Full Force and Effect. Greaney didn’t really have Clark being as intense as Clancy wrote the character. It annoyed me because Clark is one of my favorite characters in the series and in Full Force and Effect there wasn’t any real attempt to give Clark that edge he used to have. After discussing the book with friends I brought that point up, and it was then that I realized I missed the obvious: with Clark getting older and with the events in his recent past Clark really isn’t that edgy guy anymore. Even though he still goes into the field he’s made the complete transition from operative to instructor. The end of Full Force and Effect supports that theory because eventually Clark really gives it to one of the antagonists like the “old days”. Now I’m looking forward to see what Greaney does with Clark.

Pet peeve alert: There are a couple scenes where motorcycles play a role. Why do authors just presume everyone knows how to ride one? It’s one of those things I just chuckle at when reading a book. I’d love to read a story where the bad guy doesn’t get away because he doesn’t know how to change gears. Or stop. I would probably laugh hard at that.

So I’m now convinced the “Jack Ryan” universe is safe in Mark Greaney’s hands. Of course now I feel compelled to pick up Greaney’s other books. I’m sure he won’t be unhappy about that.

Random Review: The Lincoln Myth by Steve Berry

This review contains no spoilers.

Book Name: The Lincoln Myth
Author: Steve Berry
Series: #9 in the ongoing series featuring “Cotton Malone”
Publisher(s): Ballantine Books
Format(s): Hardcover/Mass market paperback/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Thriller
Release Date: May 20, 2014

Rating: 7/10

If you’re a student of history Steve Berry’s books might not be as enjoyable as they are to others as Berry uses actual places and events in his stories and then fictionalizes things to come up with his novels. Sometimes knowing what’s real and what’s been added takes away from the story, and that was an issue with The Lincoln Myth for me. I know a significant amount about the two main plot points in the story, being interested in the development of the US Constitution and while I’m not a Mormon I am very familiar with the tenants and history of the LDS church. As both play a huge role in The Lincoln Myth I had to several times stop and remind myself it was historical fiction and go back and reread sections with that in mind.

I’m also not a huge fan of the end game in The Lincoln Myth, which made little sense to me when compared to the rest of the story. Without giving anything away while Malone does what longtime readers would expect him to do during the final confrontation with the bad guys, everyone else’s action don’t really match what they’ve done in the past. There’s a new character in the book that looks like he’s about to become a regular to the series, but after 480-plus pages of acting one way at the end of the story does something that his previous actions make implausible. It’s glaring, and really causes issues in the ending.

As with all Berry novels The Lincoln Myth has a great Author’s Note section that indicates what he’s added and what’s real. Of course I knew most of those things in the book, but his notes are still a great addition to the books.

If you’re a fan of Berry’s previous books I’d say go ahead and continue on with The Lincoln Myth despite you likely being a tad disappointed. If you’ve not read anything by Berry don’t start with this one. Read them in order (including the non-Cotton Malone books) if you can and you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of them than not understanding some of the stuff in The Lincoln Myth.

Random Review: The Gods of Guilt by Michael Connelly

This contains very mild spoilers, but nothing that gives away any part of the main plot.

Book Name: The Gods of Guilt
Author: Michael Connelly
Series: Book #4 in the ongoing “Lincoln Lawyer” series
Publisher(s): Little, Brown and Company/Vision
Format(s): Hardcover/Trade & mass market paperback/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Courtroom thriller
Release Date: December 2, 2013

Rating: 9/10

After 25 books one would think an author might lose a little bit off his fastball. Michael Connelly’s 26th novel, The Gods of Guilt, proves that he’s the Nolan Ryan of writers by building another faced paced story with a few twists and turns and an ending that leaves the reader satisfied and yet still wanting more.

In the previous “Lincoln Lawyer” novel, The Fifth Witness, Connelly has protagonist Mickey Haller novel running for District Attorney. In the only true bump in the story Connelly has Haller losing the election before the events of The Gods of Guilt begin due to a scandal involving a former client killing two people in a drunk driving accident. And, of course, Haller’s daughter was friends with both victims so that throws Haller’s relationship with his daughter into chaos. None of these events are really explained in The Gods of Guilt with any detail, and the fallout from them is only tangentially dealt with. It’s almost like a short story is missing from the timeline. Be that as it may, it’s the only real issue with the story.

The rest is classic Connelly, with well thought out twists and turns that move the plot along nicely without needing to resort to the phony cliffhangers many other mystery writers have to use. Twice I was certain I had figured out who the murderer was only to find myself wrong in the next couple of chapters. By the time the reader fully realizes who the real killer is the story comes down to how Haller will be able to prove it enough to get the jury, who he calls “The Gods of Guilt” because they determine guilt or innocence, to find his client not guilty. The two twists at the end close up the story nicely, but also gives the idea that there’s maybe more to this story to be dealt in the future.

I read the first 24 novels by Connelly in succession last summer, and the last two when they were released in paperback recently. I think it’s time I start buying the Connelly books in hardcover when they come out. That’s pretty much all you need to know about how good Connelly’s writing is.

Random Review: The Victim by W.E.B. Griffin

This review contains mild spoilers.

Book Name: The Victim
Author: W.E.B. Griffin
Series: Book #3 in the ongoing “Badge of Honor” series
Publisher(s): Jove
Format(s): Hardcover(reprint)/Mass market paperback/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Thriller
Release Date: February 1, 1991

Rating: 8/10

You can read my review of the second book in the series, Special Operations, right here. That will eventually lead back to the first book in the series, Men In Blue.

Despite The Victim being the third book in the series this is really where “Badge of Honor” picks up steam. There are two murders, one an obvious mob hit and the other a cop, and Griffin hops between the two seemingly unrelated crimes with ease. Add to the mix that a friend of “Golden Boy” Matt Payne, Penny Detwieler, is wounded in the mob hit and you have three different storylines running throughout the book. The Detwieler storyline continues on after The Victim ends, but the mob hit of “Tony the Zee” has a likely real world ending that doesn’t work well in murder mysteries. But as I’ve said in my previous two reviews, “Badge of Honor” isn’t about the mysteries it’s about the relationships between the characters in the story.

The Victim is a throwback novel as it’s set in the 1970s, so no cell phones, no DNA, and crime scene forensics is really in its infancy. Being from a time where all these things are usable by police it’s fun to see how the police had to cope with the lack of things we take for granted now. Several times in the series we read of a police official “checking in” with headquarters to tell them where they are and to see if they have any messages. Griffin liberally uses the phrase “put the arm out” when saying that someone is looking for another officer. It’s maddening in a way because all you can think of is “if only they could…”.

Like the previous two books I liked this one a whole lot, but that comes with the caveat that I read all these books in order without the gap that would have taken place had I read them on their releases. The good news is you can do that too, and as so the three books have read like a long single book. That continued into book four, The Witness, and I’ll have more on that later.

Random Review: Special Operations by W.E.B. Griffin

This review contains mild spoilers.

Book Name: Special Operations
Author: W.E.B. Griffin (originally written as John Kevin Dugan)
Series: Book #2 in the ongoing “Badge of Honor” series
Publisher(s): Jove
Format(s): Hardcover(reprint)/Mass market paperback/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Thriller
Release Date: October 1, 1989

Rating: 8/10

You can read my review of the first book in the series, Men In Blue, right here.

Special Operations picks up almost immediately after the events of in the first book, Men In Blue, take place. W.E.B. Griffin tends to do that in many of his series, having the action continue through the books of a series as if they’re one long book. As he also does in many of his series, Griffin develops an “elite” organization within an organization and that’s where Special Operations is born. The oddity is there was already an elite organization in the Philadelphia police force called the Highway Patrol. It’s a unique anti-crime task force that has jurisdiction throughout the city instead of just within the district it lays. Griffin solves the issue by having Highway work under the umbrella of “Special Operations”.

The book has two main plot lines, the first is special operations being tagged to stop a rapist that has struck several times, with each case getting more violent than the previous ones. The second plot line, driven by the first, is about Peter Wohl and his staffing of the new special operations department. The downside of the first plot line is in Special Operations Griffin doesn’t follow any of the established guidelines for writing a mystery so it’s impossible for the reader to even guess at who the bad guy is. That didn’t bother me as both plotlines are more story driven than beholden to the mystery aspect, but it would have been nice if Griffin had intertwined some evidence pointing at a character he’s mentioned previously.

As Special Operations rolls along it’s starts to get obvious that the police is going to need to get lucky to catch the Northwest Serial Rapist, and not shockingly that luck falls squarely on “golden boy” Matt Payne. Unfortunately that type of ending, while common in Griffin’s books, does detract from the overall story a bit. He does do a good job of leaving a couple of plot points open for the next book, The Victim, which is where the “Badge of Honor” series really starts to pick up some steam. More on that soon.

Random Review: Men In Blue by W.E.B. Griffin

This review contains mild spoilers.

Book Name: Men In Blue
Author: W.E.B. Griffin (originally written as John Kevin Dugan)
Series: Book #1 in the ongoing “Badge of Honor” series
Publisher(s): Jove
Format(s): Hardcover(reprint)/Mass market paperback/audiobook/eBook
Genre(s): Thriller
Release Date: October 1, 1988

Rating: 8/10

As I’ve been working my way through the series that author W.E.B. Griffin has written over the years the one ongoing series that stands out a little from the others is his “Badge of Honor” books because they don’t center around either the military or intelligence/black ops. There is lots of subject overlap in the other series, but how much of the themes that Griffin uses in his military books would he be able to use in a series about police work? Griffin answers that question before he gets even halfway through Men In Blue: all of it, and yet none of it.

One would think a series about the Philadelphia police department would contain at least some aspect of a mystery, but while there are crimes committed in the series the solutions of the crimes are almost secondary. Like all of Griffin’s other series it’s the interplay between the characters that’s the focus. Griffin breaks every rule of mystery writing in the books because he isn’t writing mysteries. So if you’re looking for that kind of book, these aren’t for you.

Set in the early 1970s Men In Blue begins by setting up what quickly turns into a huge action scene and murder that is the lynchpin for everything that comes after it. The killing of Philadelphia Highway Patrol captain Richard “Dutch” Moffitt during an attempted armed robbery introduces all the main characters of the early series and sets into motion the political dealings within the department that the series is based on. Griffin has his usual type of characters in the story, although he combines some of his archetypes into singular characters. Griffin always seems to have a wealthy character at the center of the action, and in Men In Blue that is Matt Payne, nephew of Moffitt and son of another officer who also died in the line of duty.

The change for Griffin is while Payne is his “rich character” he also has him as the “golden boy” character as Payne doesn’t follow the usual path Philadelphia officers are expected to do and is instead “kept safe” by higher ups (referred to as “rabbis”) that knew his father and uncle thinking Payne was just trying to prove his manhood by joining the police department after being rejected by the Marine Corps. The one big hole in the character history of Payne is he’s rejected for an eye issue that’s never really mentioned and somehow doesn’t preclude him from joining the police force. The question of how he could have an eye issue that stopped him from being a Marine officer but not a cop is never addressed.

The murder of Moffitt is also not written like a mystery. Who did it is figured out early and it just becomes a race to find the culprit before he escapes. Griffin introduces two young plainclothes narcotics officers to the plot, Jesus Martinez and Charlie McFadden, and has McFadden figure out how to catch the perp as Martinez reluctantly goes along with him. The end scene of that storyline is classic Griffin, and propels the two young officers into the forefront despite they also not having followed the normal career path of a Philly police officer. At least the reasoning behind that is easily explained and totally plausible.

The central character in Men In Blue is Peter Wohl, a Staff inspector whose father was a well liked Chief Inspector. Griffin goes through great pains to explain the ranks of the Philadelphia police department, so I won’t bother. You’ll either see it multiple times in the series if you read them or you won’t in which case it makes no difference. Wohl is another “golden boy” character type in the series, having been the youngest person ever at each rank he’s achieved. Funny thing is Wohl is probably the most believable character in all the early books. Longtime readers of Griffin’s books will recognize many of Wohl’s character traits.

While I was really expecting mysteries what Griffin delivers in Men In Blue is really more of behind-the-scenes type story many of his other series are. And it works as Men In Blue, once it got going, was a page turner. Despite many of the plot points reaching a satisfying conclusion it’s not really meant to be a stand alone novel. I’m betting if you read it you’ll want to read the next, Special Operations. I certainly did, and I’ll have more on the soon.

Random Review: The Riven Kingdom and Hammer of God by Karen Miller

For my review of the first book of the “Godspeaker” trilogy, Empress, you can click here. Be warned, that review contains some major spoilers.

This review contains no spoilers.

Book Name: The Riven Kingdom (book 2) and Hammer of God (book 3)
Author: Karen Miller
Series: Books 2 and 3 of the Godspeaker trilogy
Publisher(s): Orbit
Format(s): Mass paperback/eBook/AudioBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: September 1, 2008 and January 1, 2009

Rating: 8/10 for The Riven Kingdom, 7/10 for Hammer of God.

For as different a book as Empress was both The Riven Kingdom and Hammer of God are pretty much standard fantasy fare. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, but after the first book I was expecting something different. In The Riven Kingdom we’re introduced to a simple island nation that is the center of trade for many other countries. Miller paints the picture of Ethrea rather well, contrasting it with the evil and ugliness of Mijak. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to know that eventually Ethrea will become a battleground between good and evil. In Hammer of God, that battle takes place.

Both books are pretty good reads, but in a lot of places they are predictable as Miller follows many of the tried and true plots of fantasy fiction. We have a dying king, a princess wanting to chose her own way as opposed to what tradition dictates, Machiavellian politics from friends and foes alike, and an unlikely hero. But as she often does Miller manages to work it all together and makes what’s old seem fresh.

What really sells The Riven Kingdom and Hammer of God is the moving back to forth between the points of view of both sides. It’s hard to write the action from both sides of a battle, but Miller does this very well. When you add to that several “third parties” that swirl around behind the scenes of the Ethrea parts of the books you could have needed up needing a scorecard to tell who was doing what for which side, but once again Miller ties it all together seamlessly.

The ending of Hammer of God is a little predicable, but it’s one of those times where that’s really where the story needed to go. The “Godspeaker” trilogy is one that I would recommend, but at almost 2,300 pages make sure you have a little free time ahead of you because I predict once you start it will be hard to stop.

Random Review: Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith

This review contains no spoilers.

Book Name: Agent 6
Author: Tom Rob Smith
Series: 3rd in an apparent trilogy
Publisher(s): Grand Central Publishing
Format(s): Hardcover/Trade paperback/eBook/AudioBook
Genre(s): Historical fiction/Thriller
Release Date: January 5, 2012

Rating: 8/10

For those that missed it, I’ve also reviewed the second book of the trilogy, The Secret Speech. It gives some insights on how I came across this series.

Agent 6 picks up soon after the events of The Secret Speech take place, but unlike the first two books Tom Rob Smith writes a story that covers nearly 30 years and deals with the Cold War between the USSR and the USA (often referred to in the historically correct term of “The Main Adversary” in Agent 6) and then into the Soviet Union’s ill fated invasion of Afghanistan. If you were looking for a “feel good” story, let me tell you, Agent 6 isn’t it.

Like the two books before it Agent 6 is really about the redemption of main character Leo Demidov, forced to deal with the emotional and intellectual trauma of his past actions with the MGB (the Soviet’s Ministry for State Security) and later the KGB. Unfortunately, those issues come right to the forefront again when during a trip to the United Nations for a concert performed by American and Soviet school children tragedy strikes Demidov’s family. When Demidov is refused permission to travel to the US to investigate the circumstances of the issue, deep depression takes over his life and eventually results in him being “exiled” to Afghanistan.

While it is incredibly well written, once what is going to happen becomes apparent it becomes a difficult book to read because the reader knows where the story has to end. Smith handles every scene well and sets the stage for what is undoubtedly the toughest thing that Demidov ever had to face, and then knowing the true facts of the tragedy what Demidov had to do to complete his redemption. The obvious ending, which is not written but only implied by Smith, is both uplifting and gut wrenchingly sad.

Smith is most certainly headed to the top of the list of great thriller writers. Folks should get on board by reading his trilogy about Leo Demidov, and they do need to be read in order to get the maximum out of them. I whole heartedly recommend Agent 6, after you read Child 44 and The Secret Speech, of course.

Random Review: Farlander by Col Buchanan

This review contains no spoilers.

Book Name: Farlander
Author: Col Buchanan
Series: #1, Heart of the World
Publisher(s): Tor
Format(s): Hardcover/mass market paperback/eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy/Grimdark
Release Date: January 18, 2011

Rating: 7/10

As funny as it sounds, it was not my intent to read Col Buchanan’s Farlander when I did. While I was reaching for a different book on my shelf (one which I still haven’t grabbed) I was on the phone and was distracted, grabbing Farlander and then wandering into my livng room with it before discovering my error. Being lazy for the moment I decided to not to walk back the less than 30 feet to my office to get the “right” book, and started Farlander instead. It was a wise choice.

Buchanan doesn’t really do anything new in Farlander, he just tells the story well. As the blurb on the back of the book says “For fifty years the Holy Empire of Mann, an empire and religion born from a nihilistic urban cult, has been conquering nation after nation”, and it’s in a city called Bar-Khos where the main story starts. Bar-Khos has been under siege for years, thanks to high walls surrounding and protecting the city. As one might guess, the conditions in Bar-Khos are not exactly optimum. Buchanan does a decent job of describing things in the city without going overboard. He sets the scenes well for what needs to be told.

The co-main character throughout most of the book is Ash (the “Farlander”), a member of an assassin’s guild called Roshun whose mission is to kill the people responsible for the murder of anyone wearing a seal of protection. In failing health Ash is, while reluctant, forced to take on an apprentice and finds one while in Bar-Khos. The apprentice’s name is Nico, and he and Ash make an interesting team. Early on it’s a straight forward master/student story, and then arriving back at the Roshun monastery it becomes an outsider dealing with the “in crowd” while being challenged by the star pupil type story. Both are pretty standard fiction themes, but Buchanan tells it well.

The abilities of the Roshun are well known, and as such anyone that wears a seal is almost certain to not be a targeted by criminals valuing their own lives. Key word: almost. The Holy Matriarch’s son deliberately murders a young woman under the protection of the Roshun in a religious-type ceremony, and after several Roshun are killed attempting to seek revenge for the young woman Ash volunteers to go on the mission. Ash’s rival Baracha also volunteers. Of course, Baracha’s apprentice Aleas is the “star pupil” Nico has to deal with. Luckily for Nico Aleas is not as pigheaded as Baracha, and the two young apprentices do manage to work well together.

Buchanan writes the story of Farlander pretty well for a debut book, with his character descriptions being top notch even for those that are only briefly in the story. And while the book is mostly a mixed batch of well used formulae the ending scenes offer a plot twist that is far too seldom used in any sort of fiction. When it becomes apparent what is going to happen Buchanan tells that portion of the story maybe the best of anything in the book.

Is Farlander a great book? No, it’s not. But it’s a very nicely written debut story both for Buchanan and for the “Heart of the World” series. Luckily I won’t have a long wait for the second book, Stands a Shadow as it sits on my to-read shelf just inches from my desk. More on that soon…