Change Agent by Daniel Suarez

Change Agent by Daniel SuarezChange Agent by Daniel Suarez
Published by Dutton Books on April 18th 2017
Genres: Sci-Fi, Technology
Pages: 416
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-stars

On a crowded train platform, Interpol agent Kenneth Durand feels the sting of a needle— and his transformation begins. . . . In 2045 Kenneth Durand leads Interpol’s most effective team against genetic crime, hunting down black market labs that perform "vanity edits" on human embryos for a price.

Change Agent takes place in the near future, where embryos are able to be genetically altered to suit their parents’ wishes, correct defects, and all sorts of other things besides. The main character Kenneth Durand is an Interpol agent charged with tracking down criminals who exploit these new technologies.

We are barely introduced to the main characters when Durand is attacked by a criminal gang, and his identity is stolen, and he is transformed into the likeness, in appearance, and at a genetic level of the leader of that gang, marking him as a wanted man.

In an effort to recover his identity, clear his name and reunite with his loving family, he must go on a weird and wonderful quest across South-east Asia to track down the real culprits, and find a way to undo the unthinkable.

I suppose the origin of this story is the question of whether scientists should do something just because they can do it. There are also questions of ethics, and morality raised in the book, and the author throws in a hefty dose of philosophy. These are some of the debates that are going on in society – around the testing of embryos for things like Down Syndrome. I am not entirely sold on the so-called science involved, particularly in such a near future setting – only 30 years from now – and the level of dystopia was a little distracting at times.

I’ll be honest, I thought a lot of the world tour, and drama was manufactured largely for the purposes of having a philosophical discussion, rather than actually advancing the plot, and there were times when I felt like “Here we go again…” but the author never felt preachy.

My other beef with the novel was that – for the most part, I never really got a good sense of the ultimate bad guy in the story. There were a few encounters with the underlings, but most of the tension was from the nameless and shapeless government forces that were either chasing Durand, or were just in the area being dangerous.

I enjoyed the main character’s dilemma, and the weird and wonderful people he meets along the way, but only a couple of them seemed to have their own motivations.

Change Agent was competently written thriller that is trying very hard to be edgy and interesting, but I think it is ultimately forgettable.

I received a review copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

three-stars
Rating Report
Plot
four-stars
Characters
three-half-stars
Writing
three-half-stars
Pacing
two-half-stars
Cover
two-half-stars
Overall: three-stars

Daughter of Ash by Matthew S Cox

Daughter of Ash by Matthew S CoxDaughter of Ash by Matthew S. Cox
Published by Curiosity Quills Press on March 7th 2017
Genres: Post-Apocalyptic
Pages: 359
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
five-stars

Designed to be the perfect assassin, Kate is as beautiful as she is deadly―everything she touches, burns.

The government attempted to engineer a pyrokinetic the likes of which the world had never seen, but their plans went awry. Her power to command fire as a living extension of her psyche was more than they had hoped for, except for one problem. Her skin is hot enough to destroy most materials on contact. Useless for infiltration, they declared the project a failure and slated her for disposal at the age of seven.

This is the second book of Matthew S Cox’s that I have read, after the previous book in the series – Grey Ronin. I immediately fell in love with the style of that novel, and was pleasantly surprised to find that his style continued into the fourth book in the series – Daughter of Ash.

The good thing about this series is that – although they are connected to each other – they are self-contained stories that don’t necessarily require a great deal of prior knowledge about the other books in the series.

The main character is a genetically engineered super-weapon who wields the power of pyrokinetics. She is able to summon fireballs at will, but those same powers mean that her internal temperature is several thousand degrees, and she burns anything she comes into contact with. Be it clothing, shoes, or other human beings, Kate is a literal danger to anyone she comes into contact with.

She serves as an enforcer for a local mob boss, but her old life, and her old masters come back to haunt her, and she goes on a journey to find her origins, and whether there are any answers, or cures for her condition.

The book really reminded me of a mix between the Fallout universe, and the television show Dark Angel. It takes the ‘best’ of these things – a post-apocalyptic wasteland environment, with so many people just trying to survive; and very relatable human super-soldiers – and smashes them together with excellent results.

Cox writes in a very accessible style, and his characters feel very relatable, and fleshed out. I thoroughly enjoyed Daughter of Ash, and would recommend it to fans of post-apocalyptic fiction, and the Fallout series.

I received a review copy from the publisher through NetGalley.

five-stars
Rating Report
Plot
five-stars
Characters
five-stars
Writing
five-stars
Pacing
five-stars
Cover
five-stars
Overall: five-stars

Nighthawk by Clive Cussler

Nighthawk by Clive CusslerNighthawk by Clive Cussler
Published by G.P. Putnam's Sons on June 2017
Genres: Thriller
Pages: 464
Goodreads
three-stars

The world s most dazzling new technological advance may turn out to be mankind s last, unless the NUMA crew can beat the clock. The thrilling new NUMA Files novel from the #1 New York Times bestselling grand master of adventure.

When the most advanced aircraft ever designed vanishes over the South Pacific, Kurt Austin and Joe Zavala are drawn into a deadly contest to locate the fallen machine. Russia and China covet the radical technology, but the United States worries about a darker problem. They know what others don t that the X-37 is carrying a dangerous secret, a payload of exotic matter, extracted from the upper reaches of the atmosphere and stored at a temperature near absolute zero. As long as it remains frozen, the cargo is inert, but if it thaws, it will unleash a catastrophe of nearly unthinkable proportions.

From the Galapagos Islands to the jungles of South America to an icy mountain lake many believe to be the birthplace of the Inca, the entire NUMA team will risk everything in an effort to avert disaster . . . but they may be caught in a race that no one can win."

Nighthawk is another in the long-running series by Clive Cussler and his co-authors, this time starring Kurt Austin and his band of merry men and women as they get carried off into another adventure for which they’re probably underprepared. They are dragged into a mission to recover a top-secret military space plane, but what they uncover is a deadly game of brinksmanship between a number of competing nations, vying to recover the space plane’s secret contents.

I have mixed feelings about the Clive Cussler books, because I always feel like they’re trying to be a bit too much of an academic version of a military thriller. But I find they are much more character-driven than some of the bog standard thrillers going around.

With that said, however, while there are an interesting and diverse cast of good guys in this book, only one of the bad guys truly stands out as being of any importance. I never found out enough about the rest of the bad guys to really care about them.

While the action is all very exciting, and the pace of the writing is relentless, there just feels like a lack of depth underlying it all. I don’t really understand why or how NUMA is the only major government force working on this problem, other than for the purposes of there being a book about it.

I feel like there are so many of these books now, and I think I lost any genuine interest back in the days when they were actually being written by Clive Cussler. This is an utterly forgettable airport novel that you will probably enjoy while reading it, but you won’t remember it in a week. If that’s enough for you then have at it, but I’m looking for a better standard of airport novel.

three-stars
Rating Report
Plot
three-half-stars
Characters
three-stars
Writing
three-half-stars
Pacing
four-stars
Cover
three-stars
Overall: three-stars

Confidential Source Ninety-Six by Roman Caribe, Rob Cea

Confidential Source Ninety-Six by Roman Caribe, Rob CeaConfidential Source Ninety-Six by C.S. 96, Rob Cea
Published by Hachette Books on August 22nd 2017
Genres: Biography, True Crime
Pages: 304
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars

In CONFIDENTIAL SOURCE NINETY-SIX, the man who goes by the pseudonym Roman Caribe recounts the harrowing life he's lead as the most successful confidential informant in the history of U.S. law enforcement. A onetime mastermind narcotics distributor, Caribe first saw the tragedies caused by the drug trade with his own eyes as he got to know the women involved with his business partner and the children that they raised. By the time Caribe was arrested in a drug bust, he had made up his mind to get out of the business for good. Rather than beat the charges as his lawyer advised him to, he would confess, flip sides, and work for the federal government.

Confidential Source Ninety-Six is the tale of Roman Caribe – a former drug dealer who – after being arrested with a truckload of drugs decided to turn into a confidential informant, and would go on to work as an undercover agent taking down other drug operations. It provides an insight into the operations of both the drug lords responsible for so much pain in the United States; and the law enforcement agents who are trying to stop them.

I was actually somewhat surprised that I found Caribe to be quite a likable and charismatic figure, and I really enjoyed his emotional journey. I have read other memoirs by former Mafia bosses, or other criminals who were flipped to the ‘good side’ after being arrested, and there’s just something disingenuous about the whole thing. It is one thing to turn away from one’s criminal past voluntarily, but often it feels like they did it for purely selfish reasons.

The book begins with Caribe’s early life and devotes a reasonable amount of pages to explaining how he went into the ‘life’, and found himself trapped with a series of psychotic drug lords and incompetent henchmen. You really get the sense that these are real people, and they are colourful and very dangerous.

As the book progresses, the author’s life shifts to one of deception, and even greater danger, as he struggles to protect his family from getting dragged into his dangerous work as an undercover operative. I think that is ultimately where the humanity comes from, that he does not shy away from the real danger and emotions that he is going through.

If there is a downside to this book it is that the author is being sold as “the most successful confidential informant in the history of US law enforcement”, and it is difficult to get an overall sense of the accomplishments of the author. He describes a number of operations he participated in, and the financial rewards he received from those, and I have to be honest, they didn’t seem that big or important. I felt that the author could have done a better job of wrapping and capping the story to justify the aforementioned claim.

This is a fascinating look at the war on drugs, from both sides of the line. I found it very readable, and a very human story filled with realistic and fascinating characters.

I received a review copy from the published through NetGalley.

four-stars
Rating Report
Characters
four-stars
Writing
four-stars
Pacing
three-half-stars
Cover
three-half-stars
Overall: four-stars

Bounty Hunter 4/3 by Jason Delgado, Chris Martin

Bounty Hunter 4/3 by Jason Delgado, Chris MartinBounty Hunter 4/3: From Marine Scout Sniper to MARSOC's First Lead Sniper Instructor by Jason Delgado, Chris Martin
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 3rd 2017
Genres: Memoir, War
Pages: 352
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
four-stars

Bounty Hunter 4/3 is the latest in a string of personal accounts written by special forces soldiers, and other military personnel recounting their experiences in the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is the tale of Jason Delgado, a Marine sniper who was involved in the thick of some of the deadly warfare which took place in the city of Husaybah.

It is in the vein of autobiographies like Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, and others, and is a very personal look at what it takes to be a special forces operative on the front lines. The book begins with the author growing up in The Bronx, and the events which led him to signing up as a Marine, and then going through the arduous training required to become a Scout Sniper. I am not saying that some of the other accounts glamourise this experience by any means, but Delgado brings a very down to earth viewpoint at the bloody nature of the business of war. By his own admission he embarked on this journey with something of an unrealistic expectation of what it took, however through his training he had this stripped away.

As an on-the-ground viewpoint, Bounty Hunter 4/3 focuses primarily on the very real, gritty experience of warfare on the street. Danger lurks around every corner, and there is a sense of the powerlessness he felt in being unable to take action to protect the locals, or the brotherhood he was fighting alongside. The downside is that it can be difficult to get a sense of the battlefield as a whole, and the author acknowledges that not many people remember the name of Husaybah, where a significant portion of the action takes place in the latter half of the book.

It is undeniable that there is a personal cost for anyone who goes to war. The author had to witness the deaths, and maimings of many of his comrades in arms, which he had to bear psychologically when he returned home. I think this is the greatest strength of the book, that going beyond the outer bravado, and spitshined image of warriors marching off to war, there are injuries which go beyond the visible. Bounty Hunter takes us inside the head of one such warrior, and into his personal family life which had to bear the cost as well.

As mentioned before, this is not the first book which covers some of this territory, but it is a highly personal, intriguing look at the life of a US Marine sniper. I enjoyed reading the book, and found it quite moving in places.

I received a review copy through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

four-stars
Rating Report
Writing
four-half-stars
Pacing
three-half-stars
Cover
four-stars
Overall: four-stars

The Desert Air War by Richard Townshend Bickers

The Desert Air War by Richard Townshend BickersThe Desert Air War by Richard Townshend Bickers
Published by Endeavour Press on January 1st 1991
Genres: History
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
four-stars

The Desert Air War is the story of the fighting men who took part in the North Africa, and to a lesser extent the Mediterranean and Italian campaigns during the Second World War. Some time ago I read another of Bickers’ books, which covered the First World War, and I was very impressed with how he managed to capture a great sense of the battlefield as a whole, and the individuals who are duelling above it.

I think when one considers the events of World War 2, the desert war is often forgotten with the focus on the great air battles over Britain, or Germany. I knew of some of the tales which have become legend, such as the valiant defence of Malta, but I really couldn’t have told you much else about the North African campaign from a air forces perspective. The Desert Air War serves as a great primer on the personalities, and competing technologies which did battle above the perhaps better known land battles.

I really enjoyed this book, and found that it was told from a very personal perspective, and was embodied with a great sense of humour which must have kept the pilots and ground crews sane throughout the war. It is somewhat lacking in terms of maps, and a sense of the bigger picture, but I don’t think that’s the author’s objective here. A thoroughly enjoyable read!

four-stars
Rating Report
Characters
five-stars
Writing
five-stars
Cover
five-stars
Overall: five-stars

SPIRE by Fiona Snyckers

SPIRE by Fiona SnyckersSpire by Fiona Snyckers
Published by Clockwork Books on March 25th 2017
Genres: Politics
Format: Ebook
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
one-star

A container of viruses - mutated and cryogenically frozen - is brought under heavy guard to SPIRE, a remote research station in Antarctica. Within days, people are dying of diseases that haven't been seen since the middle ages.

Surgeon and virologist, Dr Caroline Burchell, struggles to contain the outbreak as a vicious polar storm lashes the base. The weather prevents any help from getting through to the loneliest outpost on earth.

Soon Caroline discover that the only thing worse than being alone in this desolate place is not being alone.

This compulsive thriller with its compassionate and resourceful heroine will keep you turning pages late into the night. Spire is a sequel to Fiona Snyckers' suspense novel Now Following You, which was long-listed for the Sunday Times Fiction Prize.

SPIRE by Fiona Snyckers is without a doubt the worst book I have read this year. I hear Homer Simpson in the back of my head saying “so far” but I think this one has the legs to take on any contenders.

The main character, Dr Caroline Mary-Sue, is a surgeon/virologist/genius who goes to Antarctica to work at the ridiculously named South Pole International Research Establishment. She is separated from her know-it-all daughter and her co-habitant male companion, but fortunately they are only a quick skype call away.

Shortly after she arrives, people start falling sick, with a diverse array of infectious diseases to which our erstwhile hero is conveniently all immune. She is left, seemingly alone, in a facility filled with dead bodies, and is forced to survive because the research foundation is a bunch of uncaring arseholes who think she is the murderer and don’t want to send a rescue for her.

Naturally she insists that she is innocent, and must set about working through back channels to survive, and uncover the real culprit behind the murders of her colleagues. Everyone from the establishment to INTERPOL seems prepared to let her just starve, freeze and die in the next 8-9 months.

That’s the premise out of the way, let’s talk about the politics of this book.

In the opening pages there is a discussion of “light skin privilege”, and this trend of feminist ideology continues throughout the novel. I don’t think this book could have been any more feminist if it tried, with a brilliant, misunderstood woman fighting against an uncaring patriarchy, and its legion of incompetent predominantly male minions. This hits all the hot button topics from Islamophobia and racial profiling, to general dismissal of our heroine’s brilliance. Fortunately, there are also a few allies to help her along the way.

This book is trying way too hard to be a sort of Flashdance/Alien crossover, and its premise of one girl against the world quickly grows old. Dr Mary-Sue is an unsympathetic know it all who can basically do everything. There were times when she was called on to do some scientific mumbo-jumbo – which I didn’t really understand, but thought it would have been outside of her field of expertise – that was just sort of handwaved.

Okay, her name isn’t really Dr Mary-Sue.

Despite being stuck in Antarctica, she also seems to have extremely convenient constant access to the internet, although she mostly uses it for skyping and … WebMD (basically). I live in a major city and my internet isn’t that great, yet this seems to be no barrier to her.

The “bad guy” is basically an autistic guy who sits in a closet and watches her on closed circuit television. I say “bad guy” for lack of a better term, since everyone in the entire world besides her immediate family, and a few close internet friends, are basically servants of the patriarchy and are therefore “bad guys”. At one point Dr Mary-Sue says that at least her academic colleagues recognise the brilliance of her research while the establishment are just prepared to let her die in a freezing hell. Very eye roll worthy.

This is what happens when authors try to write techno-thrillers full of empowering feminist messages. It’s tedious, it feels incredibly inauthentic, and a lot of the action and events feel entirely cartoonish.

The only reason I stuck with the book – apart from my own masochism – was to see how badly it would all end, and needless to say the author didn’t let me down. This was an awful read from the first page to the last, and lacks any kind of momentum. Whatever pitfalls the main character encounters you already know are going to be overcome through some deus ex machina, or klutzy awesomeness.

The blurb of the book sounded interesting enough, which is why I picked it up in the first place. And if the author had taken that promise and run with it, developed proper freaking tension, and given the main character some legitimate challenges to overcome, and not just insta-win buttons for everything, this might have been a readable book.

At least it was short.

I received a review copy from the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

one-star
Rating Report
Plot
two-stars
Characters
half-star
Writing
one-star
Pacing
half-star
Cover
two-stars
Overall: one-star

Hunted by Philip McCutchan

Hunted by Philip McCutchanHunted by Philip McCutchan
Published by Endeavour Press on March 17, 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction, War
Pages: 176
Format: Ebook
Goodreads

Hunted is a fictional story set in World War 2, pitting the hero of the story and his tiny destroyer against the might of the German navy in the form of its brand new battleship which is threatening to disrupt the convoys that form the lifeline of the allied powers.

I came across this book not knowing that it was the 11th in the series, but at no stage did I feel like I was missing out on anything for not having read the previous books. Cameron is your stereotypical action hero standing at the wheel of his ship as it fights against impossible odds, etc etc etc.

If you look at the setup of this book, it is fairly easy to see that the author drew from historical references – the big bad battleship is obviously a reference to the Tirpitz, and its companions are analogs for the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. Although the tale itself is more akin to the story of the hunt for the Bismark, which was my initial impression until the author references the sinking of that vessel part way through the novel.

As with a lot of military thrillers, particularly those set during World War 2 it seems, obvious liberties are taken with logic, military protocol, and general practicalities. But let’s face it, that’s not the sort of thing you are looking for when you read a book like Hunted.

This is a short read, and if dashing tales of derringdo on rinky dink destroyers is your sort of thing, then this might be worth a look.

Black Phoenix by George Bernau

Black Phoenix by George BernauBlack Phoenix by George Bernau
Published by Warner Books (NY) on April 26, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 291
Source: NetGalley
Goodreads
three-half-stars

In the end, final victory will rise from the ashes... These words found in Hitler's bombed-out shelter were a deadly code. From the bestselling author of Candle in the Wind and Promises to Keep comes a classic WWII thriller of villainous acts, heroic risks, and a deadly Third Reich promise.

Black Phoenix is an alternate history novel, set during the closing stages of the second world war. It follows a couple of operatives who must track down the secrets of a mysterious program named Phoenix, which seeks to carry on the Third Reich through deception.

Although this book is primarily told from the point of view of Allied operatives, the author does an interesting job of taking the reader into the underground bunker, and the crazy world of a dying Nazi Germany. I really got the sense of the desperation and panic of people who were under attack and – from their point of view – just trying to survive. I am not saying that the Germans were sympathetic by any means, far from it, but it was a point of view I had not come across before.

I thought the author did a good job of building (mostly) believable characters, and building on his interesting premise by interweaving real historical events, such as the South American connections to the Nazi regime. It is, however, just a little bit silly, in the way that gungho ra-ra military thrillers always are, but one doesn’t read this sort of book looking for historical accuracy.

My other problem with this book was the amount of teleportation that goes on, with events seeming to skip around the world at a whim. I would have liked to have had a better idea of just where things were taking place. But I quibble.

Black Phoenix was an entertaining read, and is a step up from the kind of boys’ own adventure tales. Originally published in 1994, I feel like this is a throwback to an earlier era of publishing. If a reader is looking for something more serious, perhaps Len Deighton’s books, or The Man in the High Castle might suit, but this was a good time.

I received a review copy through NetGalley from the publisher.

three-half-stars
Rating Report
Plot
four-stars
Characters
four-stars
Writing
three-half-stars
Pacing
three-stars
Cover
three-stars
Overall: three-half-stars

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool’s Assassin by Robin HobbFool's Assassin by Robin Hobb
Series: ,
Published by Del Rey on August 12th 2014
Genres: Fantasy
Pages: 688
Format: Ebook
Goodreads
one-star

Tom Badgerlock has been living peaceably in the manor house at Withywoods with his beloved wife Molly these many years, the estate a reward to his family for loyal service to the crown.

But behind the facade of respectable middle-age lies a turbulent and violent past. For Tom Badgerlock is actually FitzChivalry Farseer, bastard scion of the Farseer line, convicted user of Beast-magic, and assassin. A man who has risked much for his king and lost more…

On a shelf in his den sits a triptych carved in memory stone of a man, a wolf and a fool. Once, these three were inseparable friends: Fitz, Nighteyes and the Fool. But one is long dead, and one long-missing.

Then one Winterfest night a messenger arrives to seek out Fitz, but mysteriously disappears, leaving nothing but a blood-trail. What was the message? Who was the sender? And what has happened to the messenger?

Suddenly Fitz's violent old life erupts into the peace of his new world, and nothing and no one is safe.

I have a love-hate relationship with Robin Hobb, and I am afraid that it is mostly hate, given her track history. I was somewhat hesitant at picking up another Fitz book, especially one which is another 700 page doorstop of a book set essentially after Fitz has retired from public life. Retiree adventurers don’t seem that exciting, right?

I was willing to give Fool’s Assassin a go, and I was dragged into what I thought was a deep and emotional journey of someone dealing with a dementia-like illness, as Fitz’s partner begins to believe that she is pregnant, despite her advanced age, and lack of pregnantness. (pregnancy? – ed) This then took a turn for the best – I guess – when it turned out Molly wasn’t going crazy, and she was actually pregnant.

And that is where the author lost almost all interest for me. She spent the next 600 pages introducing us to the character of the daughter, and weaving a lot of intriguing events around the family. This has been my problem with Hobb all along, and that is that she is great at building characters, but the story goes absolutely nowhere. The cast of characters is enormous, and they all have their agendas, but there is nothing tying all of this together. This feels like what should be the first third of a book of this size, rather than 700 pages of indulgent snorefest.

There were some interesting moments – particularly the daughter’s relationships with the various animals she interacts with – but the rest of the story seems utterly inconsequential. It’s like the author spent 700 pages dropping hints and suggestions about what was going to happen in the actual story, which I can only assume occurs in the second book.

The end of the book is even more confusing, as it offers a lot of wild action (FINALLY) with no real explanation, and abandons the reader on a cliffhanger that I for one did not give a damn about. If I was not reading this for review I would have abandoned it long before I hit the bitter and lame duck ending.

I suppose I understand why people enjoy Robin Hobb, but for me this novel went absolutely nowhere, and asked me to invest in a bunch of characters without giving me any reason to do so. This should have been a prologue, not an entire novel. I like my fantasy to actually involve some sort of action, not just a bunch of mystery and no forward motion.

one-star
Rating Report
Plot
one-star
Characters
three-stars
Writing
one-star
Cover
two-stars
Overall: two-stars