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The Outsiders
The Outsiders
by Gerald Seymour
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.99

5.0 out of 5 stars The best laid schemes of mice and … Winnie Monks, 5 Oct 2014
This review is from: The Outsiders (Paperback)
“Who was Winnie Monks? … She worked for an organization that did not acknowledge brotherhoods or sisterhoods … She was haunted by doubts, lonely to the point of desperation. She had given her life to the Service and would finish poor as a pauper.” ‒ from THE OUTSIDERS

Winnie Monks heads an anti-organized crime investigative unit within MI5. The unit is close-knit … a family. Then, one of her team is brutally kicked to death while on assignment in Budapest. Winnie vows vengeance on the unknown killers no matter how long it takes.

Now, three years later, Winnie’s team has since been disbanded and its members scattered throughout the organization as counter-terrorism takes center stage. But Winnie hasn’t forgotten her vow. So, after a walk-in MI6 informant reveals the killers to be the Russian fixer and smuggler “Major” Petar Borsonov and his two bodyguards, Ruslan the “Master Sergeant” and Grigoriy the “Warrant Officer”, and a memo is sent to MI6’s sister service across the Thames, Monks gets permission from her Director to reactivate her team and take the Major down. But this time, the team also includes Sparky, an ex-Parachute Regiment sniper burdened with guilt and PTSD.

Borsonov is tracked to a villa on the Spanish Costa del Sol and Winnie’s team intends surveillance of the target from an ostensibly vacant villa next door. Unbeknownst to the team, however, their observation post is occupied by a young and unremarkable English couple, Jonno and Posie, keeping an eye on the place and the house cat while the owner is back in England for surgery.

Once more, with THE OUTSIDERS, author Gerald Seymour expands the boundaries of the world’s dangerous and grotty edges to encompass and ensnare regular folks like you and me, in this case represented by Jonno and his girlfriend. But the two are English and the MI5 operatives are in the service of the Queen, so they’re all on the same side, right?

Seymour has an extraordinary talent to populate his novels with a wide range of varied and disparate personalities that are skillfully ‒ almost lovingly ‒ woven into the storyline. One can only stand amazed at the author’s knowledge of people from a wide range of backgrounds and what makes them tick.

Some readers of THE OUTSIDERS may fret that there’s too little action and the conclusion takes too long to evolve. But, like John le Carré’s spy tales, it’s more an exercise in character and plot development that’s meant to be savored, not rushed.

Another constant of Seymour’s tales is that the victory inevitably won by the Good Guys is always Pyrrhic in nature. While there may be gain, there is loss, and the win, like Life in general, is bittersweet.

Seymour writes intelligent fiction, and I can’t think of a higher accolade than that.

Lonely Planet : Drive Thru America
Lonely Planet : Drive Thru America
by Sean Condon
Edition: Paperback

3.0 out of 5 stars Annoying Aussie drives America and gets stranded on a Ferris wheel, 14 Sep 2014
"In a cool cell somewhere beneath the Capitol Building a couple of swarthy types in off-the-rack suits held us down in metal chairs while electrodes were attached to our nipples and genitals." ‒ from DRIVE THRU AMERICA, in Washington, D.C.

"We concluded our hysteric night in historic Tupelo by watching some porno movies ... and discussed what it'd be like licking other people for a living." ‒ from DRIVE THRU AMERICA

"We briefly discussed the idea of crossing the border into Mexico. But why should we? We haven't done anything wrong." ‒ from DRIVE THRU AMERICA, in Galveston

"Here in cute little Carmel-by-the-Sea they've banned obscene eyesores like streetlights and street signs ... Even indoors in Carmel-by-the-Sea they reject anything stronger than gaslight. They must be afraid of being spotted from the air and bombed or something. Still, it's quaint as hell, it really is." ‒ from DRIVE THRU AMERICA

"... although it's a real nice place to visit, I wouldn't want to live in (Los Angeles). Unless I had a cool job in TV or the movies." ‒ from DRIVE THRU AMERICA

Back in '97, the 31-year old Aussie Sean Condon did a 2-month driving tour through the Eastern, Southern, Southwestern, and Western United States with his pal Dave and then wrote DRIVE THRU AMERICA to tell us all about it.

In the tradition of Alexis de Tocqueville, it's enlightening for an American to read what a foreign traveler has to say about the United States. Unfortunately, Sean is no Alex (Democracy in America). Rather, his observations rarely rise above the superficial and his style becomes annoying when he embellishes the narrative with fantasy happenings in an effort to be clever and/or cute. As a travel writer, he's not even a Bill Bryson or a Joe Bennett. That said, however, his effort perhaps promises the same terrible fascination as watching someone OD on moon pies and sickly-sweet, cherry-flavored soda before throwing up.

Condon's most favorable opinion seems to be of California; he actually expresses a desire to live there. (I've been doing that ‒ living there ‒ for most of my sixty-five years and, trust me, it's not what it used to be ‒ even back in `97). And Sean does record one verbal exchange he had ‒ real or imagined, it's hard to tell ‒ in a Los Angeles bar and worth noting:

"I asked one extraordinarily tall and beautiful woman about the drug she was on.

'It's called Fame,' she said with a notorious smile.

'What happens?' I asked.

'You get a sudden rush of delusional grandeur. The world is yours.'

'Cool. How long does it last?'

'Fifteen minutes,' she replied. 'Gotta go ‒ I'm peaking.'"

The Importance of Being Trivial: In Search of the Perfect Fact
The Importance of Being Trivial: In Search of the Perfect Fact
by Mark Mason
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Sweating the small stuff, 1 Sep 2014
"... the only female in Lawrence of Arabia [DVD] [1989] is Gladys the camel ..." ‒ from THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING TRIVIAL

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING TRIVIAL is author Mark Mason's search for the "perfect fact". Perfect, i.e., as regards to subject matter.

I'd previously read Mason's Walk the Lines: The London Underground, Overground, and have his Move Along, Please in my unread queue, and I thought this would be an engaging bridge between the two travel essays. Perhaps I was overly optimistic.

I'm as engaged by trivia as the next guy. I remember discovering and becoming absorbed in an earlier edition of Guinness World Records 2015 when I was but a lad, and there were brief frissons of delight when I learned in THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING TRIVIAL that a zebra's stripes are white on a black background (as opposed to black on white) and that the UK's M2 motorway is the only one that doesn't have a junction with any other. However, to arrive at finding "the perfect fact" Mason considers it necessary to define the general attributes of it; he comes up with seven ‒ including that it must be true, charming and surprising ‒ after interviews with various "experts" and pub mates.

One of my favorite smells is that of pine carried on cold, crisp mountain air. I'm sure there's a physiological reason for this, but I don't need to be bothered to know or understand the reason in order to garner pleasure from the experience. The same with trivia.

To me, the author overthought the topic to produce an often boring narrative just because, well, he could. (Much like this review. The difference being that my review is free for the taking and Mason's wants money in exchange.) Moreover, he admits that the conclusion he reaches was more or less apparent up front, much as it should be for the potential reader.

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING TRIVIAL isn't awful, just not really worth the time one will spend with it.

Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
Caesar's Legion: The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome
Price: £6.16

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An eagle winging over the length and breadth of empire, 24 Aug 2014
"Jupiter Best and Greatest, protect this legion, soldiers all." ‒ according to CAESAR'S LEGION, the Legionary's Prayer

"The eagle of the (Tenth) legion, silver at this time, gold by imperial times, was venerated by its legionaries. Kept at an altar in camp with lamps burning throughout the night, it and the ground it stood on were considered sacred. Conveyance and protection of the eagle were the tasks of the men of the 1st Cohort, but it was the obligation of every soldier in the legion to defend it with his life." ‒ from CAESAR'S LEGION.

CAESAR'S LEGION by Stephen Dando-Collins, with the subtitle of "The Epic Saga of Julius Caesar's Elite Tenth Legion and the Armies of Rome", could just as well, I think, be subtitled "Highlights of the Tenth Legion's Service during Transition from Roman Republic to Early Imperium (61 B.C. - 73 A.D.)." On a wider scale, the book is a sometimes detailed but mostly cursory history of the Tenth Legion from its founding by Julius Caesar in the Spanish Roman province of Baetica in 61 B.C. to its disappearance from history no later than 636 A.D. when the Muslims invaded Byzantine Syria.

In CAESAR'S LEGION, the history of the Tenth is more a history of its association with the various Roman strongmen that controlled its movements from 61 B.C. to 73 A.D.: Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, and the generals Corbulo, Vespasian, Titus, and Silva. When a battle is being fought and the Tenth is there, then that legion is given first mention of those legions present. If an interlude of peace is at hand, then the Tenth is left for years in its permanent camp along the Rhine, or in Spain, or in Judea, with barely any attention paid to it at all.

For any student of Rome's military establishment, Stephen's book serves as an admirable introduction to how the Tenth (and any other legion) was formed, numbered, structured, officered, equipped, paid, encamped, and reenlisted and fought and laid siege. Moreover, what elevate CAESAR'S LEGION to five-star status are the six appendices: "The Legions of Rome, 30 B.C. ‒ A.D.233", "The Reenlistment Factor", "The Uniqueness of the Legion Commands in Egypt and Judea", "The Naming and the Numbering System of the Roman Legions", "The Title 'Fretensis'", and "Imperial Roman Military Ranks and Their Modern-Day Equivalents."

CAESAR'S LEGION contains several small scale maps of the Roman world that at least allow the reader to locate battle sites in a general way.

For any student of Rome's military establishment who REALLY wants to get into it, see Legions of Rome: The definitive history of every Roman legion by the same author.

CAESAR'S LEGION has the Tenth fighting in Gaul, Britain, Spain, North Africa, Greece, and Judea either against non-Roman "barbarians" and insurgents or other Roman legions under the control of rival commanders. However, it never became a couldn't-put-it-down narrative for me until the last chapters when the Tenth was involved with the 70 A.D. siege of Jerusalem and the 73 A.D. siege of Masada. At that point, the book became better than average because those battles, more than any that came before, seem relevant to anything contemporary today. Or perhaps it's because one can visit, as I have, both Jerusalem and Masada. And what can be seen at the Tenth's battlefields of Munda, Thapsus, Durres, Philippi (Filippoi), and Pharsalus if anything? (Today, Caesar's 54 B.C. supposed landing point on the coast of Kent is a golf course. I wonder if the painted locals allowed Julius to play through?)

Night in Old Mexico [DVD] [2013] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Night in Old Mexico [DVD] [2013] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]
Dvd ~ Robert Duvall
Offered by supermart_usa
Price: £8.77

2.0 out of 5 stars Gus grows old in an alternate universe, 15 Aug 2014
If Robert Duvall's "Gus" McRae character from Lonesome Dove [1989] [DVD] had grown older and lived long enough to drive from Texas south in his classic Caddy for A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO, then this would've been his story.

Duvall's character here is Red Bovie, a Texas rancher who's lost his spread to the bank and is now faced with living out his remaining life in a trailer park. Gus wouldn't have tolerated that, and Red doesn't either. Rather, he takes his stick-in-the-mud grandson Gally (Jeremy Irvine) in tow for a bit of fun below the border. Instead, they blunder into a drug deal gone bad and pick up a foul-mouthed stripper/singer named Patty Wafers (Angie Cepeda), who develops affection for the curmudgeonly but still game and feisty Bovie.

As Red and Gally head towards the border across Texas back roads, let's ignore the Joshua trees seen out the driver's side window ‒ trees limited in range to the Mojave Desert in California, Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Let's ignore the palm trees lining the streets of the remarkably un-dusty and well-developed town just across the Rio Grande in (again presumably) north-central Mexico. My wife and I are virtually certain that Latin ambience was provided by Olivera Street in downtown Los Angeles. So much for authenticity of location.

Duvall's Augustus McRae was perhaps his greatest and most loved acting achievement. It set him up for several later roles, including Broken Trail [Blu-ray] [Region Free], Open Range [DVD] [2004], and this one. Perhaps fans of Duvall as Gus will find enough in A NIGHT IN OLD MEXICO to satisfy especially if, like me, they're older and mindful of old age's encroaching limitations and societal expectations. Otherwise the film is clumsy, unbelievable, and sometimes painful to watch. Besides Duvall, only Cepeda as Patty is worth the effort.

There's even an allusion to the maturation process of boy to man characterized by the type of hat he wears, seen awkwardly here with Gally and more skillfully with Newt Dobbs in LONESOME DOVE.

I think it's due time that Gus ‒ er, Duvall ‒ saddle up and hit the sunset trail on Old Hoss or, as the case may be, driving a Lincoln Navigator.

White Lies: The 11th Spider Shepherd Thriller (Spider Shepherd Thrillers)
White Lies: The 11th Spider Shepherd Thriller (Spider Shepherd Thrillers)
by Stephen Leather
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £6.49

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spider lands in the hurt locker and Button plays hardball, 14 Aug 2014
"Hurt locker" ‒ Military slang for a bad and painful place

"You know, it seems to me that we would have been better off sending in the SAS. I said at the time it was a mistake trusting it to the SEALs. They like to go in with guns blazing, kill everyone and let God sort them out." ‒ from a previous Dan Shepherd thriller, False Friends (The 9th Spider Shepherd Thriller)

"One of the SEALs lifted up his night vision goggles to reveal his face. Shepherd recognized him immediately ... 'Bloody hell, you're a sight for sore eyes,' said Shepherd." ‒ from WHITE LIES, as Spider kisses and makes up with the SEALs

A couple of books back in FALSE FRIENDS, Spider acted as the MI5 handler for a couple of British-born Muslims as they infiltrated al-Qaeda to thwart a domestic terrorist attack. One of the two, Manraj Chaudhry, ostensibly returned to his medical studies after the mission. But, here in WHITE LIES, we (and Shepherd) learn that he's since been recruited by MI6 without MI5's knowledge and sent to Pakistan's al-Qaeda-infested Tribal Areas on an intelligence-gathering assignment. After Chaudhry's cover is blown, MI6 approaches Spider and his boss, Charlie Button, to send Shepherd in with the Pakistani Special Services Group to rescue the poor devil. Unfortunately, the attempt becomes a bleedin' disaster and now Button, back in London, must play hardball with MI6 and pull her two chestnuts out of the fire.

Author Stephen Leather uses an old but effective technique to ratchet up the tension, i.e. to alternate the narrative back and forth between the dual perspectives of the rescuers and those in need of rescue.

What perhaps makes WHITE LIES the best of the Dan Shepherd adventures is the degree of hurt in which Spider finds himself and the significant role that Charlie Button has to play in the story. If you're a Button fan like me, you've been waiting for this for a long time. She deserves her own series.

I'd like to think that Dan and Charlie will someday get married in St. Paul's Cathedral to a thunderous symphonic performance of Elgar's "Nimrod" and then settle down in Luton to raise little spies for Queen, the (remnants of) Empire, and St. George. But I suspect it won't happen.

(Note: This is a review of an advance hard copy edition received from the publisher compliments of the author. Luck or fortune had nothing to do with it.)

Border Run
Border Run
by Simon Lewis
Edition: Hardcover

4.0 out of 5 stars And the meek shall inherit ... a sack of pangolins?, 4 Aug 2014
This review is from: Border Run (Hardcover)
Jake and Will are a couple of American buds off on a backpacking tour of Southeast Asia. Southwest China first, then Laos and Thailand, then home.

While in China's Yunnan province, soon to cross into Laos, and with Burma "just over there", our two heroes meet up with Howard, a laid-back hippie dude who lives in the area. Howard promises a day's excursion to a waterfall off the beaten track near the border that tourists haven't yet discovered. Who knows, there might even be naked, native girls bathing in the pool under the falls. Local color, right? Yo, dog, we're in!

The sally-forth pretty much meets expectations until Jake accidently nails a rural customs cop with a crossbow. Then the day becomes a major bummer. Totally.

The focus of this unusual thriller by Simon Lewis is Will, a meek and timid type not comfortable with changes in plan or confrontations of any sort. Here in the jungle he finds he must take responsibility and man-up. Indeed, this is perhaps the overriding theme of BORDER RUN and is thus reminiscent of the 1971 film Straw Dogs [1971] [DVD], though the two plots are vastly different and I'm not sure why I'm compelled to make the comparison. Perhaps senility and the fact that I loved the film for the lesson it taught about getting cornered and the loss of "civilized" escape routes.

In any case, BORDER RUN is an imaginative story of a series of events that spiral out of control through faulty perceptions, circumstance, and just plain bad luck. Will, who could likely represent a lot of us, is the lab rat that must react. I liked this book enough that I'll seek out the author's previous novel, Bad Traffic.

Three Stations
Three Stations
by Martin Cruz Smith
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.39

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Arkady guns down Dopey. OMG!, 27 July 2014
This review is from: Three Stations (Paperback)
"'It's Dopey,' Vaksberg said. 'You killed Dopey.'" ‒ from THREE STATIONS, said to Arkady Renko, Dopey being one of Snow White's Seven Dwarfs (in Disney's 1937 version)

This book's title, THREE STATIONS, refers to that public open space, Moscow's Komsomolskaya Square, on the edges of which are situated three mainline railroad termini, Leningradsky and Yaroslavsky on the north and Kazansky on the south. And, to make things even more bustling with potential mischief, the Komsomolskaya Metro station serving a pair of underground lines lies between the former two.

The Three Stations square serves pretty much as the focal point for both the main plot and the subplot of this police Investigator Arkady Renko thriller by Martin Cruz Smith. Within the former, Renko persists, against the direct order of his boss, Prosecutor Zurin, to pursue a serial killer. Within the latter, to which Arkady has little if any connection, a prostitute, Maya, escapes with her infant girl-child, Katya, the rural brothel in which she was virtually imprisoned and takes a train to Moscow. While aboard the train, Katya is stolen, and Maya spends the rest of the book searching the Three Stations for some clue as to her whereabouts.

I've read some, but not all, of the Renko police procedurals. He contributes above-average entertainment to this story, but his character is still derivative from previous installments ‒ a weakness that perhaps strikes all fictional series that feature a continuing hero regardless of the impact made on readers at his/her first appearance on the literary scene, which, in Arkady's case, was Gorky Park. So here, it's actually Maya's search and Katya's haphazard odyssey that's the more interesting story line.

THREE STATIONS is a perfect escapist read for a day at the beach or a plane ride to Shangri-La, but it's not memorable or unique enough to rate five stars.

Call for the Dead
Call for the Dead
by John le Carré
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars A blast from the past ‒ for both of us, 24 July 2014
This review is from: Call for the Dead (Paperback)
"Smiley was no material for promotion and it dawned on him gradually that he had entered middle age without ever being young, and that he was ‒ in the nicest possible way ‒ on the shelf." ‒ from CALL FOR THE DEAD

I've been a tremendous fan of John le Carré's George Smiley for years. How could one not be, especially after having seen the BBC's exemplary television adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy : Complete BBC Series [DVD] [1979] and Smiley's People [1982] [DVD], both starring Alec Guinness?

CALL FOR THE DEAD was first published in 1962 when I was but thirteen. (It's hard to believe I was ever that juvenile. I may have read the book in the intervening years, though I suspect not. But, alas, memory fails.)

At this late date after Smiley has disappeared from le Carré's repertoire and Sir Alec is deceased, the chief delight for me in CALL FOR THE DEAD was learning about George's induction into the Secret Service, his early assignments recruiting and running German agents against the Nazi regime, and his marriage to Ann. Even Smiley was young once, though he apparently missed the high points.

Smiley's introduction to the readers of spy fiction takes place in his world of 1961 when George, while investigating the apparent suicide of a Foreign Office official shortly after being interviewed (by George) regarding his wartime membership in the Communist Party, encounters a blast from his own wartime past.

To those who've followed George's adventures over the years, it's evident in CALL FOR THE DEAD ‒ which was also the author's very first novel ‒ that the Smiley's character is in for considerable development over future years. Indeed, George must rely on the efforts of others, particularly an Inspector Mendel, to bring this case to a successful conclusion. Without Mendel, I doubt that Smiley would've pulled it off. In le Carré's later stories featuring George , especially when he's up against the Soviet master-spy controller Karla, our hero takes center stage, however low key and inscrutable in manner, and relinquishes it to no one.

For readers of today's younger generations who may only be familiar with the author's most recent works and know nothing of Smiley, CALL FOR THE DEAD is the place to start. The Cold War is over, but George is timeless.

In the Blood
In the Blood
by Robert J. Sullivan
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.83

4.0 out of 5 stars Does "Book him, Skiti!" have the right ring to it?, 11 July 2014
This review is from: In the Blood (Paperback)
Anything I write about IN THE BLOOD must be qualified by the fact that police procedural novels aren't ones I read much. Only a couple of titles by Joseph Wambaugh even stand out in my memory. However, IN THE BLOOD came my way and, since it had an inventive angle and promised to be a quick read, I caved.

Here, Earthling homicide detective Sam Dane travels to the planet Procrustes, populated by a mixture of human colonists and the indigenous Zherghi, to help investigate a series of slasher killings - all victims being human - that seems to coincide with the festival and mating season of Utu when festival-goers dress up in costumes and lose their inhibitions. Sam is helped in his investigations by officers Tarah Manning and Skiti Poimar, human and Zherghi respectively.

How many times has the theme of a fictional film or book revolved around a cop taken totally out of his element to help solve a whodunit in an unfamiliar cultural milieu? Here, it could just as well have been Detective Dane from New York City on assignment in New Orleans during Mardi Gras. But author Robert Sullivan chose to make it more interesting with a dash of sci-fi, and that, for me, was the hook.

At two-hundred twenty-three pages, IN THE BLOOD isn't really long enough to allow the plot to evolve and play-out with finesse. It's an uncomplicated formula crime novel against an alien backdrop.

The reason I'm rating the novel as high as I am is because Sam is a thoroughly engaging and eminently capable tough-guy hero whose character can only but continue to attract fans if Sullivan chooses to make this book the first in a Dane series. And I would expect future episodes to become increasingly more polished. If the author pens a next installment, I'll buy it.

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