The Spy Who Came In from the Cold by John Le Carré
For a book in which only the first and last chapters are action scenes, this award-winning spy novel has a big impact. Alec Leamas, 50, has just lost his last operative from East Berlin, and is called home by MI6 to London. He is given the option of retirement or one last revenge mission, to take down Mundt, who had his operatives killed. Deep under cover, Leamas takes to drink, works in a psychic library, has an affair with coworker Liz, punches a grocer, and ends up in jail. Afterward, he pretends to defect and spill his secrets for $15,000. Handed on from contact to contact, he tells all in Holland, then is sent with Fiedler to East Berlin. He is arrested, beaten up, then asked to testify against Mundt, who’d ordered his arrest. But MI6 has slipped up, contacting Liz, who just happens to be a communist, and paying Leamas’ outstanding bills. Twist after plot twist, with lots of suspense and deceit, neither the reader nor Leamas are sure in the end which is the right side. First published in the U.S. in 1964, awarded the Edgar and the Gold Dagger, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was made into a 1965 movie with Richard Burton as Leamas that also won an Edgar. This year, a TV mini-series based on the book will be released. Le Carré, writing under a pseudonym, taught at Eton before spending five years with the British Foreign Service, and has just published a memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. This very bleak look at the Cold War is still a terrific read.
Conclave by Robert Harris
In the near future, the Pope has died in his sleep, and Cardinal Jacopo Lomeli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, must lead the conclave of cardinals to select a new pope. Once the conclave begins, the cardinals under the age of 80 eat and sleep at the Casa Santa Marta and vote by secret ballot in the Sistine Chapel, secluded from the outside world. Lomeli welcomes 117 cardinals, worrying about the homily he must preach the next day, only to meet Vincent Benitez, secretly named Cardinal and Archbishop of Baghdad by the pope. This might not sound like an exciting book, but it is an absorbing thriller that is hard to put down, with an ever intensifying pace, with hints of violence in the outside world, as the cardinals have trouble reaching a two-thirds majority in the early ballots. The beautiful paintings by Michelangelo contrast strongly with the humble rooms at the guesthouse and the mediocre food served by nuns in blue habits. Lomeli is investigating some of the leading contenders, hoping to avoid future scandals. There are a lot of characters, but Harris focuses on just a few. Tedesco is an Italian traditionalist, favoring a return to mass in Latin. Tremblay is an ambitious French Canadian who met with the Pope a few hours before his death. Bellini, the Vatican Secretary of State, is the solid liberal choice, while conservative African Adeyemi has a chance to become the first black pontiff. In the first ballot, Lomeli is surprised when he gets a few votes, as he has always been a manager, never a pastor, and has been having trouble praying and sleeping. Also, the unknown Benitez gets a vote. The author is best known for his books about World War II and Imperial Rome; I thought his novel Pompeii was very interesting. If you’re looking for a fast-paced, satisfying thriller with little violence, this is an excellent choice.
Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
One summer night, a private jet takes off from Martha’s Vineyard, heading to New York City. It soon crashes into the ocean, leaving two of the passengers struggling to survive and the other nine on board presumed lost. The incredible feat of survival of struggling artist Scott Burroughs, invited on the flight at the last minute, and the person he saves make for thrilling reading. Scott has recently taken up swimming again and stopped drinking, but is completely unprepared for the huge amount of publicity he faces when they reach land. The book goes back and forth in time, giving the back stories of the eight passengers, a security guard, two pilots and a flight attendant on board, including a millionaire couple, their two children, and a man about to be indicted for money laundering. Conspiracy theories abound as the search begins for the plane and any other survivors. The survivors are likable characters, drawn together by their shared experience. The pacing and suspense never let up until a satisfying conclusion. Not the right book to take on a flight, but a quick read perfect for summer.
The Last One by Alexandra Oliva
Twelve reality show contestants walk into the woods and up a mountain to face solo and group challenges. They all have nicknames, including Tracker, Biologist, Airforce, Carpenter Chick, and Zoo. The challenges are probably familiar to watchers of any wilderness survival show, but some of the contestants are totally unprepared to survive in the wilderness, which is unusual. Caffeine withdrawal, insufficient clothing, and inability to read a map or compass are unexpected. An expert, along with Tracker, shows the contestants some of the skills they need, but no one will be prepared for the real challenge they face: a fast-moving epidemic. One morning Zoo wakes up alone, without a cameraman in sight. Zoo is married, and wanted one last adventure before starting a family. Following her blue markers, she doesn’t see anyone for many days, although some gruesome dummies are unsettling. After a coyote encounter leaves her with broken glasses, her blurry vision makes it hard to tell reality from the game. She is joined by a young teenage boy, who tries to tell her about the epidemic. They head out on a final quest, and the result is completely unpredictable. Fast-paced, very suspenseful, and moving, this first novel is sure to be a hit this summer.
Stiletto by Daniel O’Malley
This sequel to The Rook was worth the long wait. Britons with supernatural abilities are raised by the Checquy, a secret government agency which investigates crime. The Grafters, the Checquy’s longtime Belgian enemies, are in England for talks. Pawn Felicity is assigned to protect Odette, a young Grafter surgeon, but it’s not an easy job. Plenty of suspense, adventure, and some humor. The title is unclear until the last part of the book; a nice touch. If you’re in the mood for a quirky book with fast pacing and intriguing characters, enjoy!
The Fold by Peter Clines
The Fold is a fun read, a thriller that has been described as a combination of mystery, suspense, science fiction, and horror. Mike Erickson, a high school English teacher in Maine, gets a summer job offer from his friend Reggie that he finds difficult to refuse. Reggie needs him to travel to the desert in southern California where six scientists are working on a teleportation device called the Albuquerque Door. The team keeps stalling on giving the U.S. government any information about the project. The only problem seems to be one man who went through the door and no longer recognizes his wife. The team doesn’t trust Mike, who’s brilliant and can remember everything he sees or read. Clearly something is terribly wrong, or there wouldn’t be a story. I kept waiting for Mike to volunteer to go through the Door, and hoping he wouldn’t. Then Mike realizes they don’t really understand how or why the Door works. A little romance and some completely unexpected plot twists kept me turning the pages faster and faster.
I’ve been reading some great books lately. This is not one of them, but it’s great fun to read if you’re in the mood for a thriller, especially one like Jurassic Park. China has been working for decades to create a tourist attraction that will outdo anything Walt Disney could dream up. They have created an enormous zoo, with cable cars, waterfalls, a crater, castles, and a whole worker city. Journalists, photographers, and diplomats are invited to a private tour. The zoo turns out to be full of dragons (and some crocodiles), with a pair of electromagnetic shields keeping them inside the valley, and shields around vehicles and people protecting them from the dragons. The dragons are hatching now because of global warming. CJ Cameron, who studies reptiles, and her photographer brother Hamish must try to rescue the U.S. Ambassador to China when it turns out that the dragons are very smart, dangerous, and out for revenge. Reilly’s Jack West series, beginning with 7 Deadly Wonders, has more character development and a less predictable plot, but this fast-paced adventure is sure to be a hit.