The best conspiracy theories contain an element of truth, and the best novels containing conspiracies do as well. Such is the case with Ryan Steck’s Fields of Fire, the debut novel from the founder of The Real Book Spy, one of the Web’s go-to resources for thriller lovers.
Matthew Redd is doing not only what he loves, but something he is good at as well: being a Marine Raider, part of the tip of the spear that is America’s special operations forces. With nods to the characters of Vince Flynn, Lee Child, Brad Taylor, and others, Redd is a hard-charging Marine with a heart of gold, both thanks to his adoptive father, J.B. But while gearing up for the takedown mission of a scientist-terrorist, Redd is deceived by the person he helps out on the side of the road, and the result is his being disgracefully drummed out of his beloved Corps. To make matters worse, he emerges from the stockade to find out J.B. has died.
Redd sets off to his home in Montana, to the small town and open spaces he hasn’t been around in for close to a decade. He finds himself at odds with his neighbor, the son of a BigTech billionaire, learns his high school sweetheart has returned, and can’t square the messages he’s getting about J.B.’s death with the man himself. Not getting any help from local law enforcement, Redd sets out to get answers using the skills taught to him by J.B. and the Marine Corps.
Ryan Steck enters an already crowded thriller field, but brings something fresh and new in the story of Matty Redd. As not only a lover of the thriller genre, but a student, Steck has learned his lessons well and crafted a solid debut. Incorporating bits of real life, such as the Georgia Guidestones and Bill Gates buying up farmland, albeit in this case his fictitious tech billionaire being the buyer, Steck weaves a conspiracy of global proportions into the rough-and-tumble locale of Big Sky life in Montana.
Steck signed a two-book deal with his publisher, and the next novel is easily but convincingly set up at the conclusion of this one. As an adoptive father myself, I could feel J.B.’s pain and pride as Redd recounted lessons his dad had taught him. I also enjoyed the carefully-laid plot twist. If you are a lover of the thriller genre, this is a great read to add to your library.
4/5 phins, a solid debut
My interests when it comes to reading fiction, like many, took a meandering path through my formative years. Thanks to Star Wars—yes, that was the name of the movie when it came out, none of this retcon naming nonsense—on the big screen when I was six, science fiction was an early staple of my childhood reading. When I was in seventh grade, I came down with chicken pox. Looking forward to a couple of weeks home from school, I sat in the car while my mother went into the school to talk with the front office about getting assignments from my teachers. Then, and God bless her for this amongst so much more, Mom went down the hall to the library, to get me a couple of books. After a discussion with the librarian about what I liked, she came back out with a set of books that changed my life in many ways: Tolkien’s The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings.
When I was 15, my dad brought home a paperback from a debut novelist: Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. Like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings before it, this was another pivotal moment in expanding my reading horizon. These three still remain to this day: science fiction, fantasy, and thrillers. Oh, and did I mention that thanks to Tolkien and being at a middle school full of other nerds, I started playing Dungeons & Dragons? Well now I have.
So when a novel comes along that combines two of these elements, the military thriller, with fantasy/D&D, and does so very, very well, it is a no-brainer that I am going to love it. And such is the case with Forgotten Ruin.
Take a crack Army unit, throw them a few thousand years into our future, into a Europe disfigured and rearranged by a cataclysmic event which led to the very rearranging of DNA amongst the populace, so that races previously thought of as only fantasy, elves and orcs, are now a reality, and have these Rangers deal with it. Authors Jason Anspach and Nick Cole bill it as “Tolkien meets Shock and Awe.” They have crafted a real gem from a firecracker of an idea, and the execution is flawless from start to finish.
The story is told through Talker, a Ranger-come-lately. Talker is called Talker by the other Rangers because he’s a translator, speaks lots of languages, and not knowing exactly what situation the spec ops units being sent forward in time might encounter, the higher-ups figured it might be good to have some folks attached who can help out in case our heroes end up in a non-English-speaking realm. What the higher-ups don’t account for, as we learn from Talker, is just how far in the future they end up.
Ever wonder what the Battle of Helm’s Deep might have been like if Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Théoden, and the Rohirrim had machine guns to use against Saruman’s horde? You’ll get a taste of that and more in Forgotten Ruin. And what about the other units that went through, what happened to them? Talker and his Ranger buddies learn some lessons about them the hard way and seek not to repeat others.
The world Anspach and Cole have created, that of a modern military unit being cast into a medieval-style past/future/alternate reality, is nothing new under the sun, but their choices and execution of same render this nothing short of a masterpiece in the space. Is that too gushing of a sentiment? Tough. I told you at the outset I could not be impartial with this one.
Simply put: if you love military thrillers, if you love sword-and-sorcery fantasy, you will love Forgotten Ruin. Grab yourself a copy, Ranger Up with Talker and the gang, remember to Be Meaner Than It, and enjoy a great read.
In his debut novel, Don Bentley introduced the world to Matt Drake, a new kind of thriller hero, yet one still recognizable to fans of the genre. Without Sanction was a runaway bestseller, and I was glad to have followed the advice of so many on social media and give it a read. Drake takes the next step on his journey in the follow-up, The Outside Man.
I’ll be honest: I loved this book. In a private message exchange, I told Bentley I thought this was his Empire Strikes Back to the Star Wars of Without Sanction. The first novel sets the stage, but this one turns the volume all the way to 11 and takes Matt Drake, and his creator, to the next level.
After the events of the first book, this one opens with Matt being ambushed in broad daylight, on the streets of Austin, Texas, no less. There is a terrorist with a score to settle against Drake, backed up by professionals from the Middle East. Our hero manages to survive, but the ambush provides more questions than answers, and Drake is once again plunged into a world he thought he was desperate to leave, but finds his soul needs for him to truly be a part of. The villain we caught whispers of in Without Sanction is fully revealed here, and he is formidable. Worse, he knows exactly where to hurt Matt Drake the most.
One of the things I appreciate about Drake, and Bentley’s writing of him, is that he is fully human. He gets hurt, wounded, injured, and those have real-world consequences that affect how Matt continues his mission. Coupled with his vow to rescue an innocent from a sex-trafficking ring, and his snarky sense of humor, on more than one occasion one is left wondering, “Just how is Matt going to get out of trouble this time?“ As a thriller author, this is exactly what you want in your toolbox, to keep your readers on their toes and guessing what’s next.
Without Sanction was a firm entry into the thriller genre for Don Bentley, but The Outside Man vaults him into the band of my must-read authors, joining Daniel Silva, Mark Greaney, Lee (and now Andrew) Child, Nick Petrie, and Jack Carr. If you’re a fan of the genre, or just someone looking for a great read, The Outside Man is a must-buy.
Much has been made of the latest Jack Reacher novel, The Sentinel, due to its collaborative nature between Lee Child and his brother, Andrew Child neé Grant. After 24 Jack Reacher novels, Lee Child felt it was time to step away from the yearly grind of write, publish, promote, and begin enjoying a well-deserved retirement. However, knowing the love fans have for Reacher, Child didn’t want to simply end the series, and enlisted his brother Andrew Grant to take up the mantle. The Sentinel is the first of three planned collaborations before Andrew takes on the series solo. I discovered Jack Reacher—Child’s former Army MP now wandering vigilante—three years after the first book, Killing Floor, was published. I quickly blew through Killing Floor, Die Trying, and Tripwire, and began, like so many other readers, the annual wait for a new Jack Reacher novel to devour. While there are some notable differences with The Sentinel from prior Reacher tomes, devouring this one was no different from the rest.
Reacher takes himself to Nashville, to listen to good music, which in and of itself is a nod to Reacher’s past, as well as Lee Child’s as Reacher’s creator. The reason Reacher ends up in Margrave, Georgia in Killing Floor is he’s seeking out the home town of a blues man he likes. Reacher, being Reacher, gets involved in sticking up for the little guy in helping a local band, and finds he quickly needs to leave town. He ends up not too far away in Pleasantville, Tennessee. On the streets of the town completely by chance when a daylight abduction is attempted, Reacher thwarts the kidnapping and gets involved in a matter that runs deeper than it first appears, one with implications reaching far beyond the town itself.
There is certainly a different feel with The Sentinel from previous Reacher novels, the result of the collaboration between the brothers. Some reviewers have complained about the tone, or that there is too much expository from Reacher. I didn’t notice much of a change in that regard. As usual, there is ample opportunity for Reacher to say nothing. What stood out to me is that the novel didn’t feel as tight as previous efforts. One of the many things that has made the Reacher novels so popular is that Child’s writing style was as sparse as the main character’s wardrobe. It was a perfect marriage of style and character, and there is something of a departure from that in this latest book.
Nevertheless, I did not find it distracting to the point of losing enjoyment. Reacher is still sticking up the little guy, still mucking up the best-laid plans of those who wish ill on others, still being, well, Reacher. This was a learning process for the brothers, and I expect the next two Reacher novels will get better and better as Andrew establishes himself as the main author in taking on the sole responsibility for an annual Reacher story. While The Sentinel won’t vault into my Reacher top five, it is a solid entry in the Jack Reacher universe.
There are some roles which actors are born to play. There are some actors for whom roles are specifically written. Then there are those actors who perfectly fit a role you might not think before seeing them in said role would be that perfect fit. Nicholas Cage certainly fills this latter category in Dying of the Light.
I came across this 2014 film, billed as a psychological thriller, while channel surfing. It was about fifteen minutes in, but my TiVo still had those previous fifteen minutes, the description sounded interesting, so I hit record to make sure I got the whole thing, and started from the beginning. While the film has some slow parts, which seems to be such to stretch out the running time to 90 minutes more than anything else, all in all I enjoyed it.
Cage is Evan Lake, a longtime and highly decorated CIA agent. We are introduced to him as he has a flashback to a covert operation in Africa where is captured and tortured by an Islamic terrorist, Muhammad Banir. Among the other tortures, Lake has part of an ear mutilated. An extraction team intervenes before he can be killed, killing several of the terrorists, presumably including Banir. Lake doesn’t believe Banir is dead, and carries this belief with him while he continues working in the Agency for another 22 years. Just as the CIA is made aware of the possibility that Banir may be still alive, Lake learns he has frontotemporal dementia, the side effects of which…well, let’s just say they play perfectly into Nic Cage’s acting abilities and the type of roles he is more well known for.
Milton Schultz, aptly played by Anton Yelchin, is an analyst for the CIA who is a close friend of Lake’s. There is clearly a teacher-protege relationship going on, and Milt is quite fond of Lake. That fondness grows into protection as Lake reveals his condition to Milt. Due to the onset of the dementia, Lake is forcibly retired from the CIA, but with Milt’s help, undergoes one last mission to take out Banir in Africa.
The film’s production value reminded me of Cinemax’s Strike Back series, of which I’m a fan. It’s not big budget, but it gets the job done. The film itself is not without controversy, in that the studio re-edited and scored the film without writer/director Paul Schrader’s permission or input. Cage and Yelchin stood by Schrader in disavowing the finished film, and given the slow and disjointed points in the movie, I can understand why. When as a creative individual you put effort into a project, a project for which you have a distinct vision, and that is taken away from you while you have no legal recourse, well, I can understand Schrader’s frustration. He would go on to recut the movie to as close as possible to his original vision from DVD copies of the workprint. That version of the film, which he called Dark, can presumably be found on BitTorrent sites.
I do not plan to hunt that down, as I do not think it would greatly change my overall impression of the film, nor elevate what I believe is its greatest strength: the relationship between Lake and Milt.
In a world where masculine friendship and filial love has been minimized, it was refreshing to watch one friend go to the lengths Milton does to help someone he cares about, admires, and loves. Time and again, Milt makes sacrifices great and small for Lake, doing what he can to help his mentor fulfill his final mission. The conversations between the two of them are the glue of the film, and the scenes I enjoyed most.
Dying of the Light can be a little slow, it won’t be for everyone, and I was never on the edge of my seat as with some thrillers. But it makes up for its downsides with a story of friendship, sacrifice, and love that I found compelling enough to recommend it for that part of the plot.
I do not recall how I first became aware of British author Mark Dawson. Given his prowess at web and email advertisements which inevitably lead one to one of his books' Amazon listing, it could very well have been via BookBub, but I do not discount other methods of discovery. However I came across Dawson's early John Milton books, I was an immediate fan. So much so, that when Mark started his beta reader program, I was in. The chance to read the next Milton book before it was released? Sign me up! Dawson has expanded his Miltonverse with the Beatrix Rose and Isabella Rose series, both of which I also recommend.
Which brings us to The Man Who Never Was, the 16th novel in the John Milton series. Milton, who frequently goes by the nom de guerre John Smith, is formerly of Her Majesty's Special Air Service, and the ultra-black and, so far as we know, entirely fictitious Group Fifteen. Tormented by the many dirty deeds he did in service to his nation, Milton drops out of the life, gets himself into AA, and now lives attempting to balance the scales. Balancing the scales is foremost in his mind in The Man Who Never Was, where we find Milton going after the drug cartel figures he feels are responsible for the death of a friend. The novel picks up a few weeks after the previous one in the series, Bright Lights. When a damsel in distress turned out to not be entirely who she seemed, it resulted in the death of Milton's friend, Beau Baxter. Now, he wants justice for his friend, and it goes beyond the man who pulled the trigger.
Starting in the night life of Amsterdam, playing the role of an up-and-coming drug distributor, Milton, with the help of a small cadre of associates, including Beau's son, infiltrates the cartel's network. He manages to wreak a little havoc and find himself face-to-face with the boss herself in the jungles of Colombia. And it's there that Milton learns things really aren't what they seem, and the tension and action ratchet up.
If you're new to the John Milton novels, I would not recommend starting with this one. Most of the time, you can pick one up and enjoy it for what it is without having read any of the previous ones, but that is certainly not the case here. To really understand Milton's motivations, some of the characters, and the full weight of the plot, you should read the prior entry in the series. In the case of The Man Who Never Was, it is a solid brick in the John Milton wall, but not a must-read like some of the others. At some points of this book, I felt like Dawson wrote it simply because he felt he had to, due to the way he'd left things at the end of Bright Lights. Nevetheless, I enjoyed it, and cannot wait for the next John Milton adventure.
After the events of The Terminal List and True Believer, Reece finds himself Stateside, beginning to carve out a new life for himself. Taken in as a second son by the Hastings family, and being courted by the Special Operations Division of the CIA, Reece has options. He also has an agenda of his own, and his thought process is to align those with continuing in service to his nation. What he doesn't know is that he is in someone else's crosshairs, and things get wild when the hunter becomes the hunted.
Hunting is the main theme of the book, which is an homage to Richard Connell's The Most Dangerous Game. Carr has stated in numerous interviews that Savage Son is the book he's always wanted to write, but knew it couldn't be the first book he wrote. As with his previous novels, Carr brings his own experience as a 20-year veteran of the Navy SEALs to the text, and adds his love of the outdoors and hunting game. As he is hunted by the Russian mob and elements of Russian intelligence, Reece and his adopted family must find a way to turn the tables.
I've heard Jack speak at two book signings, and I follow him on social media. He is not shy about showering praise and gratitude on authors he feels taught him how to write books such as these: David Morrell, Daniel Silva, John Le Carré, Louis L'Amour, Truman Capote, and Nelson DeMille, to name but a few. With Savage Son, I would say Carr has clearly taken the best of what he has learned from these masters and poured it into his work. You can sense the progress as an author from The Terminal List, through True Believer, to now. This doesn't read like a third book by a relatively new author, but rather like the 10th or 12th by a seasoned pro.
There are certain authors whose books are automatic purchases for me these days: Lee Child, Daniel Silva, Mark Greaney, Nick Petrie, and Robert Kroese. Jack Carr has definitely joined that list. If you love the works of Brad Thor and Brad Taylor, you will love Jack Carr.
5/5 fins, a must-buy
Evoking plot elements from Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Scott Reardon’s The Dark Continent opens with CIA agent Karl Lyons looking for an ultra-black government project gone awry, one he had been a part of but was now on the outs with. The heavily obscured project, Prometheus, has taken a turn for the worse: on an abandoned oil rig off the coast of Alaska, scientists have begun injecting human subjects, and not just any human subjects. These are the worst of the worst: rapists, serial killers, death row inmates. Sound familiar, readers of The Passage?
Yet Reardon has his own twist on what happens to the test subjects, one that comes across as far more believable than Cronin’s vampires, but is just as terrifying. Defying the odds to escape from Chinese imprisonment, Karl joins forces with Tom Reese, the protagonist from Reardon’s first book, The Prometheus Man. I should note that I hadn’t read this first novel before diving in to The Dark Continent, but it was not an issue. Reardon gives enough backstory from the first book sprinkled throughout the second to get you up to speed and keep you engaged. After the test subjects escape, Karl and Tom must enter the heart of darkness the killers have created in middle America to take down the enhanced humans before they end life as we have become accustomed to it.
This was probably not the best choices of books to read during a pandemic and the inherent fears that go along with one, but I could not put it down. It is a “just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should” thriller that grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. From the beginning, I was deeply invested in Karl and Tom, and Kronin (a nod to Justin Cronin?) has to be one of the scariest fiction characters since Cormac McCarthy’s Chigurh. Reardon has crafted an engaging, suspenseful story that should make one think while being entertained.
4.5/5 fins, definitely recommended
I was afforded the opportunity via NetGalley to read an advanced reader copy of Steven Kotler's Last Tango in Cyberspace. It's a near-future science fiction novel in the vein of William Gibson's later works, though there are nods to Neuromancer and his earlier works, as well as references to Blade Runner throughout. I found it fun and engaging, and definitely worth the read.
I have heard of Kotler's earlier work, mostly non-fiction, such as The Rise of Superman, Stealing Fire, Tomorrowland, and others, but I have never read these before. That will likely change having finished Last Tango in Cyberspace.
Lion Zorn is a new kind of human, an empathy tracker. His skills allows him to feel the future, spotting trends before they happen. He makes a living giving companies a yes or no about the possible futures they are working on. Lion is hired by a multinational conglomerate named Arctic to help with the possible launch of a new kind of pharmaceutical, but he quickly finds himself investigating a possible murder while ducking the very latest in cutting-edge surveillance.
4/5 phins, recommended
Nathan told me that he’d read they’re taking this a little more linear than the books do, where the timeline jumps back and forth between the past (and multiple characters' pasts) and the present (and multiple characters' presents). I think that will be a benefit. Author Justin Cronin is listed as an executive producer. I’m really hoping that means he has real input and it’s not just an honorific. The Passage trilogy is epic dystopian myth-making. I’m actually considering stopping all other reading to pick up the first book again.
There’s also a strong adoption theme to the Wolgast/Amy relationship.
I generally give a new show five episodes to keep me as a viewer. Given I read the background material for this one, I’m likely already in. I’m anxiously awaiting the next episode.
In the interests of full disclosure: the soundtrack for this film was the soundtrack of my life in the 1980s. I was a closet metalhead–closet only in the sense that I didn’t have long hair and wasn’t allowed to go to the rock shows by my Southern Baptist-raised mother. These songs are the songs of my formative teenage years, and I was already biased toward liking this movie before I sat down in the theater to view it. So fellow ‘80s rockers whose iPods and iPhones hold Poison, Journey, Bon Jovi, Twisted Sister, The Scorpions, Guns N'Roses, and the like, you’re going to love this movie, despite its myriad shortcomings.
Oh, and shortcomings it has. For one: how do you leave out Motley Crüe from the soundtrack? Talk about your quintessential 1980s L.A. rock band. There’s not even a cut from the Crüe in the original musical. Granted, Rock of Ages is, despite its full-on '80s rock ensemble, a love story. And Motley Crüe didn’t make their bones belting out power ballads. Now it wouldn’t surprise me to learn, given Motley Crüe’s years-ago split-up, then later reformation, that there may have been some legal wrangling that proved too costly. Or maybe, being the quintessential 1980s L.A. rock band, the Crüe simply didn’t want their tracks being associated with a Broadway musical and its film spinoff.
One shortcoming which will come as no surprise: the plot’s really thin. The entire reason there’s even a plot is to give us reasons to have these songs performed. I’m sure if you took the original music videos for these songs, or video of their best live performances, strung them together one after another, and released that to theaters, we '80s rockers would be just as apt to shell out our ten bucks each to sit down and enjoy that hour and a half. One will note that Rock of Ages’s running time is just a hair over two hours, which tells you there’s about 30 minutes of nearly useless, music-less filler to slog through.
Casting: whew, we could be here awhile in this regard. But I’ll try to keep it brief. Alec Baldwin is amusing in his role as Bourbon Room owner Dennis Dupree, but you could easily interchange him with any number of actors. Malin Akerman is pure eye candy as a reporter from Rolling Stone. Really? A swimsuit cover model type cast as a reporter from Rolling Stone? The other supporting roles are as equally interchangeable among the Hollywood glitterati as Baldwin’s.
Julianne Hough is endearing as Sherrie, and we all know she can sing. (All the actors did their own singing, painfully obvious in a line of one song where Baldwin chimes in.) Mary J. Blige as Justice, the owner of The Venus Club, is a treat, and you want to hear more of her covering Pat Benatar and Quarterflash than to put up with another round of anything from Diego Boneta. My feelings regarding the lead casting of Boneta as Drew are best summed up by this line from Tom Santilli in his Examiner review (read after I saw the film):
He seems more suited for musical theater, which I guess this is, but he just seems like the kind of guy Stacee Jaxx would have beaten up in high school.
And speaking of Stacee Jaxx, this leads us to Tom Cruise. Like many, when I saw Cruise was taking the role of the fictional rock legend, I had serious doubts he could pull it off. And while I don’t think his singing voice is quite right for certain numbers (“Paradise City”, most notably), he sings well enough to indeed pull it off. I’ll also give Cruise points for giving an appropriately dark performace as a rock god who’s having trouble accepting his place in music history, and not knowing where to go next. I got the feeling he was channeling Axl Rose as the latter dealt with his own issues following Guns N'Roses’ ascendance from overnight success to rock institution.
There’s a lot to ding Rock of Ages for, but all in all, it’s a fun movie. And if the soundtrack of your life was like mine during that time period, you may find yourself wanting to go see it again.