thriller

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

 

Book Cover - The Martian

Andy Weir’s “The Martian,” has received a tremendous amount of positive hype since it was first published in 2011, and lots of great reviews, even from scientists and astronauts.

 

It’s all well deserved. Instead of being a boring, techy tome (sorry, but some science based fiction bogs down in the science and forgets to entertain) it is a riveting, barnburner of a story.

 

Mark Watney is an astronaut that has been accidentally left behind on Mars after a sandstorm threatens to strand the Ares3 crew millions of miles from home. He has been seriously injured and the other crewmembers think he is dead, so they leave the surface under orders from Control.

 

When he comes to, he assesses his situation and declares that he is in deep trouble. Two words come to mind: ingenuity – the quality of being clever as well as inventive, and resilience – the capacity to recover quickly from hardship. Watney never blames the crew for abandoning him, and instead, attacks his problems head on.

 

The best sci-fi throws real people into a strange world where they must use skills from their own world to cope and/or deal with the new. “The Martian” is a cross between the TV shows MacGyver and Survivor. As if just being alone on the planet isn’t challenging enough, he has to work out his oxygen supply and food supply and somehow let Earth know that he’s not dead yet. Being the first and only Martian is not as much fun as you might think.

 

Watney knows that the next mission to Mars won’t arrive for another four years and that he has to travel 2000 miles to get to the rendezvous point. He has to find a way to stay alive that long. That is, if he doesn’t blow himself up before the food runs out. Anything can go wrong, including explosions and leaks and not having access to the guys at NASA. Yes, even computer access goes down. Imagine being cut off from the guys that keep thousands of possible solutions to any given dilemma only a keystroke away.

 

Complete silence outside the Habitat. Isolation. Like every other pioneer in the wilderness, every decision Mark Watney makes is about life and death. We groan at his harrowing setbacks, gasp/laugh at the outrageous solution to growing his own food, admire his ingenuity at solving space/sleep/water issues. “The Martian” is a celebration of man's resilience in the face of intolerable hardship.

 

When Weir (an actual scientist and software engineer) wrote “The Martian,” he worked out planet positions and shuttle orbits to support his storyline. Andy Weir tested many of the decisions made by his  astronaut so that Watney could realistically work his way through the challenges. If the science wasn’t right, it didn’t go onto the pages.

 

Weir gives Watney a belief system in “The Martian” that makes it all work. Watney has an outrageous sense of humor and an “I can fix this” attitude, no matter what is thrown at him. If he’s alive, he has another chance to get it right. If he can get past listening to old disco songs left behind by his crew mates, and do without even the fake coffee, he can survive anything. 

 

Of course, Watney has the right credentials (engineering and botanist degrees) to do the job, making the book that much more successful. There is no high school student solving the complex problems in this book just by virtue of being a computer whiz. But, duct tape – that heavy, cloth backed, silver tape that plumbers and electricians use so often – plays a great role in the book. Gotta love that legitimately, a low-tech item could save expensive equipment from complete failure.

 

There is strong language in response to some of his situations, so don’t read “The Martian” if you are offended by four letter words. It’s not pervasive, but it’s there, and appropriately used.

 

A movie based on the book, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Matt Damon, was released in 2015. Happily, it was astounding.

 

 

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“Ransom River” by Meg Gardiner

 

Book Cover - Ransom River

In Meg Gardiner’s “Ransom River,” lawyer Rory Mackenzie reluctantly returns home to Ransom River, California, after funding for the charity for which she worked, dries up. There was no place else to go, but her memories of the people in the place she grew up still haunt her. And she immediately gets called to jury duty on a high profile case. Not a great start to her homecoming.

 

She is chosen as juror #7 and settles in for the duration, notebook in hand. From Rory’s point of view, the capital murder case looks like an easy win for the prosecution, given the obvious false testimony of the two police officers on trial for killing a teenaged burglar. (The officers were having an affair, the teenager broke into the house on a dare, and everything went south.) The jury is watching a crucial piece of evidence, a video of the shooting itself, when two men storm the courtroom and take everyone hostage. Shotguns are very convincing persuaders as the jurors and spectators are threatened into following orders, and the casualties mount.

 

The action rapidly unfolds and the hostages are rescued, but the question remains, what did the kidnappers want? Rory had tried to signal for help from the courtroom windows and becomes a suspect for her troubles. The cops have her in their sights, needing someone to pin the courtroom debacle on. Her skanky relatives show up, and add to her misery, feigning interest in her well being, but looking as if they want to cash in on her sudden fame. The dead teenager’s father, a local crime boss, thinks she knows more than she’s telling.

 

But, Rory doesn’t know what she knows, except that the past is encroaching on the present in ways that terrify her. Seth, her old boyfriend (childhood friend and a former cop) gets involved and he’s about the only hope she has for getting at the truth. Gardiner has created another strong, yet vulnerable, young woman in Rory Mackenzie – worthy of her own series of books, although “Ransom River” is a stand-alone – and Seth is a convincing complement to her.

 

 

There are a number of twists and jaw-dropping surprises in “Ransom River,” and several well-written, deliciously slithery characters. Old friends may not actually be friends and help comes from unexpected places.

 

If I mention which people truly gave me the creeps and made me wonder if I really wanted to read into the night – that would be telling. I quashed the creepy feeling and kept going. Gardiner has a knack for writing ‘stay-awake-reading’ and I did need to find out how Rory got out of each of her dangerous situations. The reason behind the courtroom drama is much more complex than it first appears, and the ensuing action is non-stop in this intense thriller, as greed rules the day.

 

I must say that Meg Gardiner’s “Ransom River” has an ending that will blow your mind. Hopeful and a little scary at the same time.

 

Read my review of Ms. Gardiner's "The Memory Collector," here.

Please visit www.meggardiner.com for more information about her recent book releases, awards and appearances.

 

 

 

 

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“Ghost Country” by Patrick Lee

 

Book Cover - Ghost Country

Patrick Lee’s “Ghost Country” is the second in a three-book series. I read solid comments about the first book, “The Breach,” and wanted to see if “Ghost Country” lived up to the reported high standards set by the debut sci-fi/adventure/thriller. Wow! That would be a resounding, “YES!”

 

ENTITY: Technologically advanced gadgets (entities) come through the super secret BREACH.

BREACH: A type of wormhole in Wyoming, created when an ion collider exploded.

 

As “Ghost Country” opens, Paige Campbell, a high-level employee of a government agency called TANGENT, has just left a briefing with the President about an entity so powerful that it can change our view of both the present and the future. This entity (in the shape of a rolling pin sized cylinder) has the ability to transport the holder through time – but only 73 years into the future and back again.

 

Paige’s convoy is attacked while the White House is still in view. In a minute by pulse-pounding minute description of the perfectly executed attack, including details of a PDA-holding guy checking for photos of the ‘keepers’ as a shooter follows behind to dispatch the rest, Lee sets the pace and feel of the book.

 

Paige is able to send a message to her tech-savvy contact, Bethany Stewart, right before she is abducted. Bethany enlists the help of Travis Chase, a man who has been in hiding for two years, working at a low level job, avoiding contact with anyone and everyone associated with TANGENT.

 

Bethany and Travis obtain an entity, but have a limited amount of time to figure out what it does, while trying to save both the world and Paige. Along the way, they discover evil schemes, get a look at a hideous bone-filled, ruined future, and take advantage of Bethany's considerable hacking skills. Oh, and nearly get killed several times.

 

Lee treats us to imaginative uses of the time travel device to help Travis and Bethany stay ahead of the bad guys, gives a nod to the inevitable time travel paradox and delivers one of the most chilling methods to change civilization that I’ve ever read – worthy of the intelligent-but-twisted villains that want to counter the world’s present path.

 

The clever storyline in “Ghost Country” is diabolical, and even shocking, but there are no loose ends. The tech part of “Ghost Country” is blended with great dialogue, interesting characters and relationships, and action that works in any time period. Make sure your ereader is fully charged before starting this novel, because you'll want to read it uninterrupted.

 

“Ghost Country” raises an intriguing question: if you had the opportunity to move to another time (whether past or future) would you? Would you at least be curious enough to take a peek without stepping all the way across the threshold of the time/space continuum? Lee’s novel made me want to.

 

There are references to events in “Breach,” but “Ghost Country” can be read as a stand alone using the brief definitions supplied at the book’s beginning. “Deep Sky” is the third in this series and I’m looking forward to reading about what’s next for these engaging characters in the midst of complex circumstances.

 

“The Runner,” the first in a new series, has just been released.

Please visit www.patrickleefiction.com for more information about this talented author and his other books.

 

Full disclosure: Patrick Lee’s thrilling “Ghost Country” came through my techport as a result of an online endorsement by his agent, Janet Reid. I’m a subscriber to Ms. Reid’s marvelously informative and occasionally sharky snarky column.

 

 

 

 

 

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“The Conviction” by Robert Dugoni

 

Book Cover - CONVICTION

 

Top Seattle attorney, David Sloane, may be at home in the courtroom and able to outsmart his opponents, but he is out of his element when dealing with his troubled stepson.

 

Sloane’s wife has died and he has relinquished custody of his stepson to Jake’s biological father who lives in California, a move that has confused and angered Jake. “The Conviction” opens with Jake’s future at stake after he has been arrested for public intoxication (for the second time) and property damage. The judge decides to give him one last chance to straighten himself out in rehab or else go to jail. She assigns responsibility for Jake’s attendance to Sloane and they head back to Seattle.

 

Rather than re-bonding with his stepfather, Jake remains sullen and resentful. He’s back in the house where he witnessed his mother being murdered and can’t get past his grief and rage. When Jake and David are invited to go on a camping trip with an old friend and detective, Tom Molia, and his son, T.J., it looks as if a week in the woods might be a great way to reconnect with this young stranger that David no longer understands.

 

But instead, Jake tries to buy beer and cigarettes with fake ID on the first day of the trip, and drags T.J. along with him. The storeowner confiscates the ID, but the boys return later and break in, taking liquor and a rifle along with the recovered ID. Of course, they get caught by the police soon after, but not before they get drunk and shoot up the woods close to town. Sounds like a mess, with T.J. a reluctant participant, driven by his need to be accepted.

 

The boys are tried, convicted and sentenced to time in a local juvenile detention center (Fresh Start) before their fathers even know they’re missing from their room. That’s only the beginning of the nightmare that ensues.

 

The fathers attempt to get Jake and T.J. retried and released, or at least moved to a facility closer to home, but are stymied by the cops and judge in this small California town that seem to skirt constitutional rights. Sloane and Molia suspect corruption, but with what motive, what payoff?

 

Dugoni delivers an alarming story of a juvenile legal system gone horribly wrong, with teenaged inmates working as virtual slaves in boot camps, rather than receiving the rehab and guidance advertised in the fancy brochures. He takes a look at teens who make poor choices despite the help available, and the serious consequences awaiting them. Dugoni never implies that Jake and T.J. should not be punished for their actions, merely that they be counseled on their rights and then sentenced appropriately.

 

At Fresh Start, Jake grows up quickly when he discovers that something more is going on at the camp beyond their re-education, and that knowledge could get him and T.J. killed before David can get them out. The parallel plotline of the fathers trying to free the boys, while working against the clock and being threatened themselves, is gripping.

 

“The Conviction” moves from legal suspense to thriller mode in this pulse-pounding, page-turning, sleep-robbing tale. I had several ‘gasp’ moments as Dugoni built tension and advanced the dramatic story.

 

There are no false notes. Jake’s ability to deal with whatever is thrown at him physically, is set up early on and the action involving the supporting characters is completely believable, given their backgrounds. Those supporting characters, whether adults who oppose (or side with) Sloane and Molia, or teens who battle (or help) Jake and T.J., are so clearly drawn that I kept casting them in a movie in my mind’s eye.

 

This is the fifth book in the David Sloane series and in my opinion, the best so far.

 

Read the review of "Wrongful Death" here. Go to www.robertdugoni.com for information about all of his projects and where you can catch his next terrific writing class.

 

 

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“The English Girl” by Daniel Silva

 

Book Cover - The English Girl

 

Gabriel Allon is a master art restorer whose finally tranquil life is endangered by politics and demands of former bosses. Once a ruthless Israeli operative at the top of his game, he’d like to be left alone. He’s been shot at, tortured, threatened, held behind enemy lines, his family killed, and yet the ‘powers-that-be’ ask for more in the name of patriotism and helping old friends.

 

This time, a young English woman disappears in Corsica while on vacation. Why is Allon asked to help a foreign government find their missing citizen? She was having an affair with the British prime minister. The P.M. is embroiled in a political crisis at home and she was a rising star in British politics. Any scandal that breaks would be catastrophic. Any ‘handling’ of the situation by English operatives would be looked upon as misuse of MI5 funds. Of course, it would also be wildly inappropriate to use Israeli funds, so the operation would be privately financed.

 

Ever cautious, ever suspicious, Allon investigates the English girl’s disappearance and the subsequent ransom (meet the demands in seven days or she dies) before he agrees to take on the case. Allon works with former as well as current enemies to gain access to the people who are in a position to find out what happened and why. The pressing questions: Who were the players? What else was going on?

 

“The English Girl” is more than a spy story with international intrigue in the background. It is an absorbing character study of a man driven by patriotism once upon a time, but now haunted by his past. His life was ripped apart and the anger at what was taken from him still lingers, along with an inner sadness created by the knowledge that his profession is the source of his pain. The demons at first prod him to turn down the assignment, but then the assignment itself becomes a way to quiet his torment.

 

Silva studies politics on an international scale – the domino effect of decisions made by our country’s leaders, both personally and publicly, that shape global policies. Can the mere fear of public exposure of private matters really topple governments?

 

One of the interesting subplots in “The English Girl” is the interplay between two operatives who must work together out of necessity. During the time Allon and his counterpart, Keller, are together, they spar about the difference between a hired assassin and a Mossad agent – one does it for the paycheck, the other for love of country. Allon feels morally superior even though they both do the same things – interrogate, kill, rescue, scheme, save/steal secrets. But in this interplay, along with Allon’s relationships with those in his inner circle, a spy is shown to be multi-dimensional, not just an assassin, but having a home, a wife, and educated interests.

 

Silva has a compelling writing style, employing dialogue that works brilliantly. Several times the main characters made remarks that were repeated soon after for mild comic relief or for dramatic emphasis. He has captured the natural flow of interaction to such a degree that I always felt a part of the story, never sidelined or merely watching the action unfold.

 

“The English Girl” is a gripping page-turner, with plenty of twists and turns to satisfy. How will this operation affect Allon as aspects of the operation remind him of his dead wife and child? How will this operation change his future?  What deals does he have to make along the way?

 

Silva’s thirteenth novel in the Gabriel Allon series debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. The next one, “The Heist,” was released in the summer of 2014.

 

Please visit www.danielsilvabooks.com for more information about Silva and his books.

 

 

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“Harvest” by Tess Gerritsen

 

Book Cover - Harvest

A young, talented surgical resident, Dr. Abby Di Matteo, is recruited to become a future member of Bayside Hospital’s organ transplant team. Seems perfect – a dream job where she will be doing something she loves while working with her fiancée.

 

The catch? She and Chief Resident, Dr. Vivian Chao, take a heart listed in a donor registry for their dying teenage patient, but somehow slated at the last moment for a wealthy woman who is number three on the donor list. The husband of the rich patient is incensed and tries to ruin Dr. Matteo’s career. Terrible murder accusations are made, but no one believes in her innocence except Chao who did the organ harvest with her. Matteo wonders whom she can trust, especially when the origin of the transplant heart becomes suspect. 

 

This action packed novel is full of surgical detail along with personal, legal and professional drama. A parallel story of potential transplant donors (involving the Russian Mafia) is tragic and horrifying at the same time.

 

Organ harvesting is certainly not new, but in 1996, when this book was first published, the medical community in the U.S. was undergoing yet another review of the process of matching donors with recipients. It had been legal to donate organs for over thirty years, but as transplants of all types became routinely successful, doctors of the gravely ill sought more donors. It became important to establish a national clearinghouse for the available organs, ranking potential recipients by need for the organ, not by income level. This ranking eliminated questions of unfairness, but wasn’t foolproof. Enter a new phase for the medical thriller.

 

A bit of literary trivia: “Harvest” mentions a paralyzing drug, succinylcholine. This drug is widely used by anesthesiologists to induce muscle relaxation during surgery, but in the wrong dose can cause wide-awake paralysis. If you enjoy medical thrillers, you might remember the same drug used in Cook’s “Foreign Body” (published in 2008) with very different results.

 

Please visit www.tessgerritsen.com for more information about Gerritsen’s many bestsellers, including the Rizzoli & Isles series upon which the TV show is based.

 

 

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“Eyes Wide Open” by Andrew Gross

 

Book Cover - Eyes Wide Open copy

 

A terrible tragedy has occurred. Jay Erlich’s nephew, Evan, has committed suicide by jumping off a cliff and the family is devastated. Jay feels guilty for not trying harder to stay in touch, even though he had assisted his half-brother, Charlie, and sister-in-law financially whenever possible. The family dynamics had been on shaky ground at best, with a dysfunctional father and multiple step-mothers. Not a warm and fuzzy upbringing for Charlie by any definition. Jay had become a successful surgeon, but Charlie had fallen off the rails, finally on welfare after years of substance abuse. But now, perhaps Jay could make up for some of that gap and at least help discover why the judicial/health/mental care systems had failed Evan so miserably.

 

Wait. This is an Andrew Gross thriller. There are always layers to the story. And what chilling layers they are…

 

Charlie feels the system abandoned his son, discharging Evan from a psychiatric facility after only four days instead of three weeks as promised, then placing him in a half-way house with no security. That because Evan was poor, he was shuffled around, neglected and mishandled. That the system killed his son. Then Charlie discovers a piece of evidence that brings his once colorful past crashing into the present, a past that includes unspeakable evil.

 

As Jay’s investigation continues and even intrudes on his professional life, devastating family secrets are revealed, cover-ups are exposed, relationships are strained to the breaking point, a villain is revealed who is the devil personified, Jay himself is in danger, and Evan’s suicide appears to be something quite different. The characters in “Eyes Wide Shut” are multi-dimensional and completely realistic. I felt as if I was listening in on intense conversations, inside the heads of people living the page-turning story.

 

One question raised in this book is the attitude by the police toward the less fortunate. Are all big city police so overburdened that they overlook clues, want to close cases before they should? In reality, police departments are overburdened, and if statistics are any indication, the deaths of homeless and mentally ill persons are left unsolved or become cold cases just because there are generally no reliable witnesses to their deaths and/or no family members around to ask about them. According to FBI statistics from 2011, thousands of murder/suicide cases go unsolved each year. To see my post at www.kerriansnotebook.com, “What is a Cold Case?” click here.

 

Throughout this well written psychological thriller, Gross touches upon several societal issues. Is a poor person less entitled to decent health care, therefore bound to suffer from less attentive meds management? Does nobody care how and where the poor pass away? One only has to visit a less than adequate Medicaid facility to see that there is a great deal of truth underpinning the fictional struggles Jay’s family endures. And, in soul-bearing fashion, Gross bases Evan’s struggles on those of his own nephew Alex, who passed away in 2009. So real on the page, so painful.

 

A few words of caution: Be careful who you hang out with today…your present associations might hunt you down in the future; no matter how hard you try to hide. Lock your doors when you read this one.

 

Before Andrew Gross’ tremendous success as a stand-alone author, he co-authored five bestselling titles with James Patterson. “Eyes Wide Open” (2011) was followed by “15 Seconds” (2012) and the most recent, “No Way Back.”

 

Please visit www.andrewgrossbooks.com for more information about the personal experiences that have fueled his books.

 

 

 

 

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