Review: Red War (Mitch Rapp #17) by Kyle Mills

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Red War (A Mitch Rapp Novel)
By Vince Flynn, Kyle Mills
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Red War, the seventeenth Mitch Rapp thriller and fourth penned by Kyle Mills, finds the CIA assassin on a mission to execute the Russian president, Maxim Krupin. Recently diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, Krupin has grown ever more unpredictable and uses his final months to further consolidate his power, executing his enemies and political rivals, as he takes the world to the brink of World War III.

As with Tom Clancy before him, Vince Flynn's series has always been rather timely in its reflections on current events. Red War is no different, with Mills setting Krupin's actions and the CIA's response in the wake of Russian hacking efforts to disrupt US elections. One would have to be blind to miss the real-world context Mills uses as a spring broad to launch into his story of black ops and Krupin is most certainly a familiar character right from the book's opening pages.

Described as a president who keeps his citizens blinded with nationalism and memories of his country's glorious past, Krupin's behavior is irrational and erratic, his power built on a platform of lies he has told both enemies and allies in order to erode trust in anyone or anything beyond himself. If Krupin is not immediately recognizable to American readers as a Trump analogue, in addition to an obvious riff on Vladimir Putin, then he is most certainly the kind of dictator the United States's manchild of a president openly worships and models his own behaviors upon. With regular reminders that this physically and mentally ill state-head is in possession of nuclear arms, Krupin is broadcast as a legitimate threat (and by association, his real-world counterparts that so clearly served as an inspiration here) to democratic norms and the safety of the free world.

Mills gives us a nice bit of escapism in Mitch Rapp gunning for Krupin, aided by former Russian assassin Grisha Azarov, who is violently pulled out of retirement to aid the CIA's efforts, particularly after the last several years of the US falling victim to Russian hacking efforts. As Rapp notes at one point, Russia will never be an ally to the US but they can at least be contained. The promise of the CIA delivering justice in fiction is a soothing and necessary, if short lived, balm, especially since our real-world government is content to simply maintain complicity in exchange for power. It's safe to say Mitch Rapp is needed now more than ever.

Mills continues to build on Flynn's characterization of Rapp, as well, helping to move the assassin away from the buffoonish conservative cartoon he was becoming in Flynn's later novels, edging him closer and closer to the methodical and thoughtful man of action audiences were first introduced to in Transfer of Power nearly twenty years ago. Mitch has survived a lot since then; those experiences have helped to both age and wisen him, and he's been a significant player on the global stage. It's refreshing to see Mills break away from the typical Arab threat that has been the backbone for so many of Rapp's stories, moving him into strange and unfamiliar territory with this book's Russian theater of opposition.

Red War arrives at a crucial juncture in American history, and carries with it a decidedly appropriate title. Particularly given that this book's biggest problem, potentially, may lie in convincing those Trump supporters who read it to accept Russia as a legitimate threat, even if only fictionally. Clearly, we've come a long way since the "Better Dead Than Red" days of the Cold War, but with Emily Bestler Books planning national ad campaigns to put Red War in front of the audiences of Fox & Friends and Rush Limbaugh, one must wonder just how receptive they'll be of Mills' very thinly-veiled repudiation of their red hatted leader and their likely-stained "I'd Rather Be A Russian Than A Democrat" t-shirts. Are MAGA readers willing to accept government operatives as heroes after being spoonfed so many reports of so-called fake news in regards to Russian meddling in US affairs and attacks on the various justice agencies by their Dear Leader? On the other hand, if the publisher is merely looking for an audience already lost in a fantasy world, you can't do much better than consumer's of Limbaugh and Fox News.

[Note: I received an advance reader's copy of Red War from Emily Bestler Books after being selected as a Mitch Rapp Ambassador. This is my third year as a Mitch Rapp Ambassador, however this status conveyed upon me by the publisher has in no way swayed my opinion of this work or prevented me from delivering an honest review of this title. Many thanks to the publisher for once against selecting me and providing me with this ARC.]

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Review: Manifest Recall by Alan Baxter

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Manifest Recall
By Alan Baxter
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Eli Carver has a bit of a problem - he's a wanted man and there's a kidnapped woman sitting next to him in the car he's driving. That's not the real problem, though. The real problem is that he can't remember how or why he's gotten into this predicament. As an enforcer for a mob boss, Carver has killed his fair share of people, and a number of them are now sitting in the backseat of his car, rooting for his demise. To make things worse, Carver keeps experiencing lost time, blacking out just as he begins to recall the sequence of events that have put him on the run.

I haven't read Alan Baxter previously, but Manifest Recall was a solid enough introduction that I fully expect to cross paths with this author again in the future. Manifest Recall is satisfyingly violent, dark, and consistently engaging, even when you consider that not a whole lot actually happens in the first half of the book in terms of forward momentum. While there's plenty of information conveyed to the reader as Carver and Carly, the kidnapped woman, converse and Carver begins to recall certain details about himself and his past, the duo are mostly confined to the front seats of the car, driving to parts unknown and with no destination in mind. Baxter punches things up with some brief moments of violence, but much of the story is told in flashback until we hit the book's second half and the characters and readers alike are all caught up to speed. While part one of Manifest Recall is a smooth read, part two really kicks things into high gear as the story races swiftly to its big, action-packed, run-and-gun climax.

Although Manifest Recall is billed as a supernatural crime thriller, it can be read one of two ways. You either accept that the ghosts, each of them one of Carver's victims, are literally supernatural entities that only he can see and speak with, or you chalk up their presence as hallucinations belonging to a damaged man having a psychotic break with reality. Personally, I prefer the second path and while I choose to interpret Baxter's work here as more of a straight-up crime thriller, others may just as comfortably accept Carver being literally haunted. Given its billing, though, I was expecting much more spookiness and was a bit disappointed that Carver's ghosts was the be-all end-all to this story's supernatural element. However, if I approach this title as a straight-up crime story of a killer who is metaphorically haunted by his guilt and suffering an extreme mental break, Manifest Recall becomes supremely satisfying.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher, Grey Matter Press.]

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Guest Blog: Ghosts, Monsters and Myth: Cusp of Night by Mae Clair

Thank you, Michael, for hosting me on your blog today. I’d like to share my upcoming release, Cusp of Night, with your readers. A story that delves into the Spiritualist movement of the 19th Century, Cusp of Night also touches on ghosts and an urban legend in the present. Releasing June 12th, the book is currently available for pre-order from all online booksellers.

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I’m a huge fan of creatures and things that go bump-in-the-night. In 2013 and 2014, I took two trips to research the Mothman, a cryptid that featured into my POINT PLEASANT SERIES. For my HODE’S HILL SERIES, I needed a new creature. Rather than use an existing monster from folklore, I decided to create my own. I’ve always been fascinated by Spring Heeled Jack and borrowed elements such as leaping fences and scrambling over rooftops to create “the Fiend.”

In the history of Hode’s Hill, the Fiend is responsible for several horrific murders in the late 1800s. The creature’s body was never found. Its legend has morphed into the stuff of urban myth. In the present, the town honors the past with an annual Fiend Fest in which contestants dress in costume, hoping to achieve the top prize.

My main character, Maya Sinclair, is on her way home from the Fiend Fest when she witnesses an assault on the patriarch of the town’s leading family. Is the assailant someone dressed in Fiend attire, or the creature returned from the shadows to wreak vengeance?

Cusp of Night is a blending of past and present, dual plotlines which converge in the legend of the Fiend—and restless ghosts the centuries have been unable to disperse.

Ghosts, monsters and myth. Here’s the blurb:

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Blurb

Recently settled in Hode’s Hill, Pennsylvania, Maya Sinclair is enthralled by the town’s folklore, especially the legend about a centuries-old monster. A devil-like creature with uncanny abilities responsible for several horrific murders, the Fiend has evolved into the stuff of urban myth. But the past lives again when Maya witnesses an assault during the annual “Fiend Fest.” The victim is developer Leland Hode, patriarch of the town’s most powerful family, and he was attacked by someone dressed like the Fiend. 

Compelled to discover who is behind the attack and why, Maya uncovers a shortlist of enemies of the Hode clan. The mystery deepens when she finds the journal of a late nineteenth-century spiritualist who once lived in Maya’s house--a woman whose ghost may still linger.

Known as the Blue Lady of Hode’s Hill due to a genetic condition, Lucinda Glass vanished without a trace and was believed to be one of the Fiend’s tragic victims. The disappearance of a young couple, combined with more sightings of the monster, trigger Maya to join forces with Leland’s son Collin. But the closer she gets to unearthing the truth, the closer she comes to a hidden world of twisted secrets, insanity, and evil that refuses to die . . .

PURCHASE HERE

 

You can find Mae Clair at the following haunts:

Website | Blog | Twitter | Newsletter | Facebook | Goodreads | Amazon | Other Social Links

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Review: The Woman In The Woods by John Connolly

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Deep in the Maine woods, a tree falls and unearths the remains of a woman, the only mark of her grave a Star of David carved into a nearby tree. Soon, a wave of violence will disrupt the lives of a handful of people as the search for the woman's child ensues, and the book the woman once possessed in the days leading to her demise. Drawn into this is Charlie Parker, a private investigator touched by darkness, and for whom violence surrounds him.

The Woman in the Woods is the 16th entry in John Connolly's Charlie Parker series, and its opening chapters carry with it an unmistakable dread. The threat and promise of death looms large over this series, naturally, but it feels more prominent here, more like a warning. Or, perhaps, more like a preparation. Parker and his associates are growing older, as is the author himself, who recently celebrated his 50th birthday, and who has been writing about Parker for going on 20 years. I can't help but feel like Connolly is beginning to move his pieces closer toward an end game, tightening the narrative threads of particular concepts introduced in previous entries and forcing his characters to reflect on the nature of their demise as a close ally to Parker faces the threat of cancer. Of course, long-time readers will know that not even death can spell the end of a character's story, but it still feels like the noose is tightening around the series and that its finale is soon to be upon us.

As with prior novels, Connolly gives us heartless killers with odd afflictions, detours into the supernatural, and glimpses of an overarching narrative involving the war of good against evil. In The Woman in the Woods, we find evil particularly emboldened. I believe this is the first Parker novel written squarely amidst the turmoil of the Trump presidency, a presidency that has served only to empower white supremacists. Beyond the murderous Quayle and his companion Mors, there is the threat of white supremacy and the burgeoning increase in bigotry and racism as represented by the Stonehursts, the youngest of whom rides around in a truck decorated with Confederate flags. Naturally, Luis takes some issues with this northernmost Confederate idiot, allowing readers to live vicariously in the nitwit's comeuppance. It's interesting to see how the Trump regime has impacted some of my favorite authors and their responses to the creeping nature of this odious moron's hate into their work. In Stephen King's The Outsider, we saw graves desecrated by swastikas, and Nicholas Sansbury Smith's Trackers series has provided a good bit of Neo-Nazi-punching heroics. Sadly, the normalizing of these repugnant attitudes by the right-wing is now common place and hate crimes have been on the rise ever since Trump took office, so it's quite refreshing to see characters like Charlie Parker and Luis taking a stand against this all-too human evil. Their actions and reactions toward the Stonehursts had me smiling rather happily along the way, and I suspect this family of rich racists will be playing a larger role in the books to come.

There are few series that I look forward to with as much anticipation as a new Charlie Parker novel, and The Woman in the Woods delivers on a number of fronts. The characters and dialogue are as sharp as ever, and Connolly infuses the narrative with a sense of creeping dread, one that promises to deliver even more worry and upset in the near future. While I suspect we're finally getting close to the end of Parker's ultimate story, I certainly hope I'm wrong. There's nothing I'd like more than to keep on reading Connolly's series for many, many more years to come, but if the end of near, I believe Parker and company will be going out on a high note, and the end began here, with the discovery of a dead woman lost in the woods.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, via NetGalley.]

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Review: Blood Standard by Laird Barron

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Blood Standard might be one of the best crime thrillers I've read in recent years, and while I'd put Isaiah Coleridge in the vein of a Jack Reacher-like protagonist, Laird Barron produces a work of violent noir that wins on its own merits and kept me hooked the whole way through.

Isaiah Coleridge is a Maori/Caucasian-mixed hitter for The Outfit, a mafioso crime syndicate that has assigned him to Alaska to keep the men there from getting into too much trouble. In the book's opening moments, Coleridge ends up making trouble of his own when he's brought into the fold for a sadistic seal hunt that ends with him attacking a made man. After one of The Outfit's higher-ups cashes in a favor, Coleridge finds himself exiled to the Adirondacks in upper New York. Needless to say, trouble once again finds Coleridge when a local girl goes missing, and Isaiah quickly finds himself caught in the crosshairs of the law, mobsters, and warring street gangs. Given the amount of scarring that covers Coleridge's body like a roadmap, this is just another day in the life of Isaiah.

Coleridge is a great big mountain of a man, and violence runs in his blood. Lee Child fans will feel right at home here, although Coleridge is more introspective and philosophical than Child's wandering former MP. College educated, Coleridge is as book smart as he is street wise, fascinated by ancient Greek myth, and the histories of Odysseus and Hercules lend plenty of thematic weight to Blood Standard. Barron's protagonist is one clearly cut from classical cloth, but his wiseguy mouth keeps him firmly rooted in the modern day. Isaiah is an incredibly well-drawn tragic hero, and one with plenty of tough guy wit, as well as a few moments of self-depreciation.

Barron weaves in moments of introspection between a good number of brief action scenes and plenty of tension, surrounding Coleridge with a number of clearly untrustworthy figures with questionable reputations. Coleridge is also given a few well-rounded foils in the love-interest, Meg, and partner-in-crime-cum-heroics, Lionel, a hard-drinking ex-military sort. Isaiah's scenes with these characters help to inform his growth as a man seeking to turn over a new leaf and set his life right. His history, his brushes with death, his exile from The Outfit, and his own firmly established moral code have left Coleridge grasping for a new life, and we get plenty of glimpses of what that life could be, the promises it could hold for him if he does right, how quickly it could fall apart if he steps wrong, and how badly anybody who crosses him will get hurt.

Laird Barron has crafted a terrific new character here, and half-way through Blood Standard I found myself already jonesing for the next book. I'm excited by the prospect of Coleridge's new life and focus, and I'm dying to see what future odysseys ensnare and disrupt him. This is a character that has plenty of legs for a series, and lots of layers left to mine in subsequent entries. And since I've gone and compared Coleridge to Reacher already, let me just say here for the record that I like Reacher a lot. But I like Coleridge a whole lot more.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.]

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Review: Obscura by Joe Hart

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Obscura
By Joe Hart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Joe Hart takes us into the near-future in Obscura, to a time when the Earth is severely polluted and global warming is set to pay a disastrous toll. A deadly new virus, Losian, has emerged, cursing the afflicted with an Alzheimer's-like memory loss on the way to fatality. Although science hasn't had much luck curbing mankind's deadly carbon footprint, it has made some headway into developing a new, cutting-edge method of travel currently being tested in space. Inexplicably, though, the human test subjects are developing violent psychoses and memory loss - symptoms that bear remarkable similarities to Losian. After losing her research funding, Dr. Gillian Ryan is recruited by NASA to continue her work and develop a cure for those afflicted aboard the space station. Easy, right?

Hart does a tremendous job building up the story of Obscura, giving Gillian plenty of personal reasons to be involved in the search for Losian's cure, while also making her an important and striking character in her own right. Smart, tough, and resourceful, Gillian is a terrific heroine, but one who also has an important weak spot in her addiction to pills. On the science front, Hart's fresh mode of travel will be old-hat to plenty of sci-fi fans, but the technology is given a shiny new coat of paint here thanks to some refreshing plot elements and unintended consequences.

While Obscura is a thrilling read, Hart infuses plenty of creepiness throughout, injecting some welcome elements of horror that will keep readers guessing. There are a few memorable scenes, and characters, etched into my mind thanks to Hart's vivid descriptions and scenarios that packed a lovely bit of wow factor. The story itself is what truly grabbed me, though - murders aboard a space station, drug addiction, and whole lotta paranoia - all perfectly paced and flawlessly executed. I absolutely had to know what was happening, and what was going to happen next.

Obscura is the kind of read you need to clear your calendar for because this is one hell of a page-turner from start to finish. Fans of Blake Crouch’s Dark Matter and Pines should feel right at home with this cutting-edge thriller.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from publisher Thomas & Mercer via NetGalley.]

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Review: The Listener by Robert McCammon [audiobook]

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The Listener
By Robert McCammon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You ever finish a wonderful book, but aren't quite sure how to encapsulate your thoughts on it in a review, or what may be left to say after so many others have eloquently tread this same ground and said all the things already? This is the place I find myself in now, having just this morning finished listening to The Listener. This sucker's gotten a lot of positive press and plenty of wonderful reviews already, and I feel like I don't have much else to add. Still, I suppose I must try.

Simply put, Robert McCammon knocks it out of the park with this one. Set in post-Depression Louisiana, The Listener revolves around a kidnapping plot hatched by a pair of grifters who fancy themselves a Bonnie & Clyde duo. Their plan is to abduct the two children of a wealthy industrialist and hold them for ransom. Caught up in it all is Curtis Mayhew, a young black man with a supernatural gift. Curtis is a listener, and can communicate telepathically with others who share this special gift. He's been communicating with a ten-year-old girl, Nilla, and when she sends an urgent cry for help about a man with a gun, Curtis knows he has to help, damn the consequences.

The Listener is a slow-burn potboiler that places particular emphasis on its characters first and foremost. McCammon is meticulous and deliberate in his pacing, introducing us to each of the major players and their places in the world as they work to either scheme or merely eek out a living before becoming embroiled in this kidnapping. Each of these character's stories are paid off in beautiful and sometimes surprising ways as The Listener reaches it final denouement. This historical narrative is so perfectly constructed that nothing ever feels unnatural or out of place. Readers are eased into Curtis's life and his gift in such a way that, once his telepathy is used to full effect, it's every bit a natural part of the character as the air he breathes.

McCammon's writing is equally effective, his prose rife with lingo of the era, and he captures moments of human drama perfectly. There's humor and moments of sadness, as well as turns of violence that are both shocking and cinematic, and sequences of abuse that will have you ready to lunge out of your seat to restrain the psychopathic Donnie before he can inflict more harm on whoever dares to step near him.

Marc Vietor's voice captures the proceedings perfectly, hitting all the right pitches and tones of McCammon's literary style. His talents as a narrator are well-suited to the 1930s era of The Listener, with its hard-edged con-men and crazed women, as well as the softer, more rounded subtleties of gentle men like Curtis, who prize their brains far more than their fists. Vietor and McCammon make for a perfect pair here, and the audio edition of The Listener is a wonderful, and engrossing, production all around.

McCammon delivers a story that feels wholly authentic from start to finish, and The Listener just might be on the best books of the year. Highly recommended.

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Review: Forsaken (Unit 51 Book 2) by Michael McBride

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Forsaken (A Unit 51 Novel)
By Michael McBride
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Genre absolutists will have a field day trying to classifying Forsaken, the second in Michael McBride's Unit 51 series. Like its Subhumanpredecessor, McBride seamlessly blends scientific thrills with plenty of action, globe-hopping adventure, and some moments of delicious horror, all of which add up to a gripping read that's difficult to adequately categorize.

Having spent the bulk of Subhuman slowly unravelling this series's premise with methodical deliberation and stage-setting for the books to follow, McBride drops readers straight into the deep-end in Forsaken. Six months after the startling discoveries beneath the Antarctic research base Atlantis, readers are reunited with the Unit 51 team as the book's core of researchers have returned to their research and explorations. Soon enough, each are drawn back into the thick of things as alien encounters in the Antarctic and the discovery of a buried Mexican temple point toward a common threat, as well as the emergence of a new enemy that may be pining for the end of the world.

It has been a while since I read Subhuman, so it took me a fair bit of time to reconnect with the women and men of Unit 51 and to try and remember who's who. McBride tosses in a lot of characters, a fair number of whom are disposable and make little more than a one-off appearance in order to be killed in various and interesting ways to help shuffle the plot along from point A to point B. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself, but it does gives the primary members of Unit 51 a sense of imperviousness. While these characters constantly find themselves in peril and get all kinds of banged up along the way, I never really got the impression that they were in mortal danger simply because McBride reserves the bulk of Forsaken's grisly deaths for more minor, tertiary Redshirt characters. Character development is pretty thin and minuscule all around, a complaint I had regarding Subhuman as well, but one that is ultimately pretty low priority for me given how well everything else is done in these books. McBride keeps the pace amped up with kinetic fervor that I ultimately didn't much mind the disposable cardboard cutouts caught up in the mayhem. I was too busy flipping pages to find out what comes next and having myself a grand old time reading.

Despite my inability to connect with any of the characters, I found myself loving Forsaken simply because it's an incredible amount of fun. Fun goes a long way for me, and I can always count on McBride to deliver an entertaining read. Once he hits the halfway mark, Forsaken becomes an incredible actioneer, chockfull of adventure that carries the story along to the finish at a breathless, breakneck pace. The narrative hops between the various Unit 51 crew, ping-ponging between their ordeals in the Antarctic and the simultaneous, violent encounters in Mexico as the researchers explore the booby-trapped temple, and it's at this point that Forsaken becomes impossible to put down. This sucker is a roller-coaster, fueled on adrenaline and gunpowder, and with just as many turns and narrative wrinkles to jostle the car in a number of exciting ways.

Books like the Unit 51 series typically come in two flavors - dumb fun, like Matthew Reilly's Scarecrow books, or propulsive adventures wrapped around scientific plausibilities, like James Rollins's Sigma series. McBride falls in the latter category, exhibiting a rich scientific acumen, medical know-how, and plenty of attention to detail that gives both Unit 51 titles smarts to spare, as well as enough of a real-world pedigree to make the most speculative aspects of the plot wholly convincing.

I also like the fact that the Unit 51 series is shaping up to be a cohesive series. These aren't stand-alone adventures with all new stories for each installment. Unlike the Sigma series, Unit 51 is a legit, and massive, single story being told over multiple books in what I presume will be a trilogy. It's a safe bet a third Unit 51 title will be on the way, and I can guarantee I'll be reading it as soon as I can sink my claws into a copy.

[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from the author.]

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