Ice Cold: Tales of Intrigue from the Cold War, edited by Jeffery Deaver and Raymond Benson

As the end of the year draws near, I thought that I might read and review a few short stories from this collection: 

Police Report, by Joseph Finder.
When Chief of Police Henry Silva receives a call from dispatch about a body, he jumps into action. After he learns that the perpetrator is with the body and awaits the authorities, Silva speeds over to investigate. Ray Richardson awaits Silva’s arrival and is more than happy to explain why he killed Vladimir Polowski. Silva is led away from the scene as Richardson takes him to a local motel and shows him the proof he has amassed about how Polowski killed his father in 1958 and revenge was the only solution. By the time the State Police arrive, Silva has learned a great deal but is not entirely ready to turn over the suspect. However, knowing the chain of command, he releases Richardson into the custody of the State Police, only to realise things are completely backwards. It’s part and parcel for the Cold War and CIA antics. 

The Last Confession, by John Lescroart
The story’s narrator lays the scene for growing up in a large Catholic family, full of siblings and highly devout parents. His next oldest brother, Julian, has signs of autism and has always been a little high-strung. While attending a school assembly run by the priests, the student body are told about the ramped-up Cuban Missile Crisis and how San Francisco is in the crosshairs for a missile strike. Testing their faith and fear of God, one of the priests leads the students to believe that a missile has been launched and is on its way, sure to kill them all. Julian’s reaction is emotion-filled and leads to him being mocked by others. Unable to bear the ridicule, Julian takes things into his own hands, which commences a domino effect that cannot be reversed. 

A Card for Mother, by Gayle Lynds and John C. Sheldon
Fraulein Doktor Anna Klaas is working in Berlin, perfecting the turbofan engine, all in hopes of helping the West in its ongoing struggle against the Soviets. When Anna’s mother becomes ill, plagued with cancer, Anna does her best to cope with the devastating news, but knows that there is hope at the Mayo Clinic in the United States. Anna has not been able to secure the funds for anything but the initial trip and has to wait for Stasi approval to release her mother from her East Berlin apartment. News comes of an accident that has befallen her mother. The event might not have been as ‘accidental’ as Anna was led to believe. With the Stasi’s involvement, anything is possible. 

His Mother’s Son, by J.A. Jance
Isadora Creswell and her husband, Lloyd, are surprised when their granddaughter blurts out that her father is a spy. Young Alyse saw Gunnar Creswell meeting with a beautiful woman in a local park before they played the suitcase switcheroo. Alyse is asked to keep this to herself, while Isadora and Lloyd use their numerous contacts to look into the far-fetched allegations. When Alyse calls, months later, to say that her father has been arrested by the FBI, Isadora worries more that her granddaughter could be in danger, as she is able to identify this mystery woman. When tragedy befalls Gunnar, Isadora concocts a plan to ensure that Alyse is kept safe from both the Americans and the Russians, for whom Gunnar has been working. Will it be enough to keep her out of the limelight or will the Creswells face a second tragedy in short order? 

Side Effects, by T. Jefferson Parker
Mike lives as normal a life as a sixteen year-old can, with a fallout shelter stocked with food and neighbours preparing for the worst as well. He and his siblings, Max and Marie, must ensure the family shelter is properly prepared for the end of days and ready for the monthly meeting of the John Birch Society. However, Mike has bigger issues to attend, namely spending time with his neighbour (and secret crush) Adlyn Lamm. Adlyn tells Mike all about her father’s secret stash of experimental drugs, as part of a military program to control the masses. Adlyn and her brother, Larkin, have been able to experiment with these psychotropic drugs and Larkin has had some very odd side effects from taking them. The Lamms have had to move on countless occasions when young girls mysteriously disappear and are later found murdered. When Mike pieces it all together, he realised that Larkin is due to strike again soon, and can only be stopped if reached in time. Will another girl die at the hands of this drugged-out boy? 

While this is only a cross-section of the stories in the larger collection, they offer an interesting collection of ideas and insights of some popular authors who grace the bestseller lists. They differ greatly, one from another, tied only together by their common Cold War theme. This is enough to provoke much divergence and great fictional presentations to tantalise the reader from beginning to end. Had I more time, I would likely dive in to read more, and maybe I will at some point later on. At present, what a great way to end the year, as the weather is equally Ice Cold.

Wheat Belly, by William Davis, MD

Three stars (of five)

As the parent of a gluten intolerant and potentially celiac child, I wanted to have a better handle on some of the arguments being made surrounding the health of gluten-free eating. Much discussion has come from this book, both positive and negative, leading me to ask myself if there might be some merit in reading what he has to say. Davis weighs in heavily, from a medical perspective, about the evils of wheat and its horrendous affects on the human body. The book begins by taking the responsibility for worldwide (especially North American) obesity away from the consumer and directly at the feet of wheat, one of the supposed whole grains people are told to consume by healthcare professionals. Arguing that it is the modifications made to wheat in the latter part of the 20th century that has made wheat consumption as dangerous as injecting/ingesting opioids and leaves the body as run down, Davis posits that the general population would stand exponential benefits from leaving gluten, especially that found in wheat, in their past. He uses the middle section of the book to show just how bad wheat can be and the awful things that it can and does do to the human body, including spiking blood sugars, creating insatiable hunger, and premature aging. Davis recommends a ‘cold noodle’ approach to completely sever wheat consumption to see how one can drastically change their weight and lifestyle with the somewhat simple loss of this grain. Citing numerous successes from amongst his own patients, Davis feels certain that wheat is behind many of the world’s heath woes and that the removal of wheat can act to alleviate some symptoms of other diseases. Any reader who thinks that leaving gluten behind and beginning a gluten-free diet, complete with the food alternatives sold in special section of your local grocery store might want to think again. Some of these wheat alternatives (potato starch, cornstarch, etc) might not aggravate the small intestine, but will spike blood sugars in ways equally or more detrimental than with wheat. Davis lists many foods that might be useful for those wishing to leave wheat behind, while also keeping the body’s chemistry in check. A very interesting read, but surely to be read with an open mind and taken with the proverbial grain of salt.

Stepping back for a moment, the conscious reader will note that Davis is a cardiologist and while he uses his soapbox effectively from a medial standpoint, his expertise lies outside of gastrointestinal diseases and disorders. While he does list numerous patients who have tried and succeeded at his no-wheat recommendations, he surely promotes this as general medical practitioner and not as a specialist with an intimate working knowledge of the ins and outs of celiac disease and its other gastrointestinal nuances. Additionally, Davis cites that he has wheat issues and so the book is fuelled also from his own personal experiences. Some might say this personalises the arguments and others that it jades the foundation of the book; I find myself sitting somewhere in the middle. The book leaves no wiggle room when it comes to wheat and clearly inculcates into the mind that the grain is falsely promoted by health professionals as a beneficial part of a balanced diet. Davis reminds the reader that they have been misled for decades and that he has come to act as health messiah. He does show that other studies have shown the issues with wheat, but chose not to accentuate it in the data. Where does this leave the layperson who is seeking to determine a professional’s opinion? As with most things, the reader must splice the information for themselves and determine how much of the sermon should be followed. Davis keeps his arguments relatively basic and his directions equally simple; stop eating wheat now and you will feel better. If only it were that cut and dry.

Kudos, Dr. Davis for this interesting view into your wheat-based insights. I take what you say and add it to my own knowledge to form a well-rounded opinion.

Fair Extension, by Stephen King

Four stars (of five)

As an added bonus to his Kindle release of BIG DRIVER…

King’s short story abilities continue to amaze with another completely unique tale, with strong undertones of his past classic NEEDFUL THINGS. Dave Streeter is riddled with cancer and feeling the affects of chemotherapy. During a drive through Derry, Streeter comes across a small kiosk where George Elvid is running Fair Extensions. Ever the curious consumer, Streeter seeks to learn more about what Elvid might be peddling. After some innocent inquiries, Streeter learns that Elvid is in the business of offering extensions to people, whatever they might need more of in order to live a happy life. In return, a percentage annual fee is negotiated and the customer is on their way. Thinking of the cancer that is sure to take his life, Streeter tells of a friend who seems to have it all going for him and how it was, at least partially, based on ill-gotten gains. Streeter enters into the agreement with Elvid and begins to see changes in his life, as well as that of his purported friend. King delineates the rise of Streeters fortune and how, for a fee, an apparent fair extension to his life is within his grasp. Delightful as much as it is entertaining, King has unearthed another short story classic.

The story’s idea is simple, its delivery seamless, and the outcome appears effortless. King takes the reader into one of his rabbit-hole storylines, where the impossible can happen at the drop of a hat; a snake-oil salesman always willing to offer up the solution that no one else can proffer. As the pages of the story rush by, the reader is taken on a short journey through the lives of the characters and, in true King fashion, someone always ends up suffering plight akin to the life of Job (as is plainly referenced in the text). At times humourous as well as glimpse into fate’s capabilities, King shows how the power of belief can turn the tables on any roadblock.

Kudos, Mr. King for another entertaining piece of fiction.

Big Driver, by Stephen King

Three and a half stars (of five)

King wastes no time in ramping up the excitement, which takes the reader on a harrowing adventure. Tess accepts a library speaking engagement to discuss her latest published novel, hoping to be in and out with little fanfare. She’s done so many of these that they’ve lost their lustre, yet the money is worth her while. After tepid coffee and tinned cookies, Tess makes smalltalk with her host and learns of a slightly off the beaten path route home that will save her much time. Tess accepts the advice and, armed with her trusty Tomtom GPS, she heads out, only to run into some car trouble on the way. She flags down a passer-by, who agrees to help, but soon finds herself brutally assaulted and left for dead. Using every shred of wherewithal she has, Tess is able to get home, where she begins plotting her revenge, the identity of her attacker burned into her memory. It is at this point thatĀ things take a turn; the GPS and Tess’s cat become integral characters in the revenge plan and play vocalised conscience roles as Tess peels back the mystery behind her attack. A good way to spend a little time entertained by King’s antics, sure to make an interesting television adaptation.

King has ideas that are so ver far reaching and numerous that I often wonder when he has the time to do anything other than put them down on paper. This short story is no different, offering neither a unique idea nor a twist the reader could not see coming, but still proving to be highly intriguing. The story unfolds in a simplistic manner and keeps the reader from checking the clock. That said, it is nothing stellar or highly thought-provoking, which, when it comes to Stephen King, might be a nice change of pace.

Kudos, Mr. King for all your hard work and how well you presented this story to your readers. As always, a delight to see what you have inside your mind.

Saul’s Game (Homeand 2), by Andrew Kaplan

Four stars (of five)

Fans of HOMELAND will surely find Kaplan’s second prequel novel highly interesting, filling in some of the cracks laid out in the television program. While working undercover in Damascus in 2009, Carrie Mathison is leading an operation focussed on al Qaeda terrorist, Abu Nazir. When the plan goes south, Carrie figures that someone is leaking intel to the enemy,as Nazir is always one step ahead. Carrie turns to her boss, Saul Berenson, who sends her on the most trying mission of her life into the highly unstable Islamic Republic of Iran, all to coax the leak out of hiding. Exploring back stories on Carrie, Saul, and a young Nicholas Brody, Kaplan teases the series fan with breadcrumbs sure to excite and encourage them to keep tuning in to the Showtime classic program.

Kaplan has raised the bar from the first novel he penned on the series, adding new layers to the storyline. The television series is intense and trying to capture the same level of thrills and drama is difficult, though Kaplan has done his best. Carrie, again the central character, has her flaws pushed under the microscope, but Brody’s youth and turning prove to be highly intriguing as well. Fans of high-thrill terrorism novels and of the HOMELAND series alike will laud Kaplan for his addition to the prequel series.

Kudos, Mr. Kaplan for all your efforts in providing some of the stories untold on the television screen to allow HOMELAND fans the added touch of character development.

Woman with a Gun, by Phillip Margolin

Four stars (of five)

Margolin’s latest crime novel branches into some interesting directions to keep the reader highly entertained. Stacey Kim seeks inspiration for her next writing project, seeking to find the ‘next great novel’. On her lunch break, Stacey visits MoMA and stumbles upon a photo exhibit featuring Kathy Moran’s “Woman with a Gun”. The highly provocative photo portrays a woman in a wedding dress, staring out on a beach with an antique pistol behind her back. While Kim begins to dig around into the real story behind the photo, the reader is taken into a flashback to discover that the woman is Megan Cahill, whom Moran found on the beach. Cahill, unable to remember how she got there, becomes a prime suspect in her husband’s murder, when Raymond’s body is found in their home. Megan’s amnesia keeps her from presenting a thorough alibi, though the authorities feel she may have planned the event with an accomplice. In addition to the murder, some antique collectables are missing, one of which ends up being the murder weapon, a pistol purported to have been owned by Wyatt Earp. While Raymond Cahill had a large fortune and made many enemies in his time, the authorities are unable to solve the crime, as the bodies of other potential suspects begin turning up, their murders equally baffling. Moran has her own troubled past before she discovered photography, which becomes the focus of another flashback. Now Kim seeks to go further than the authorities could a decade before while she compiles information for her next fictional classic. However, someone seeks to shut down her investigation before she discovers too much and unravels the mystery to its core. Margolin tells a great story with a wonderful twist, all while keeping the reader wondering how a single photo might hold the key to a number of murders.

Since discovering Margolin and his writing style, I have been highly entertained and thoroughly pleased. His legal style and ability to take the reader down a path of high excitement does not wane from beginning to end. While this novel had a slight matryoshka doll feel, a story within a mystery within a criminal tale, I was able to peel back the three time periods and piece it all together to tell the larger story. Margolin keeps the characters constantly developing and the plot line ever-evolving. By the end, the reader is fully ensconced in the story and is surely looking for more.

Kudos, Mr. Margolin for this interesting story and highly unique approach.

The Homecoming, by Earl Hamner, Jr.

Five stars (of five)

No holiday season is complete in my household without remembering the story of THE HOMECOMING. When, on Christmas Eve, Clay Spencer has not returned home from his forty mile trek for the holidays, the entire Spencer household is on edge. Olivia pines for her husband’s safe return, but cannot put life on hold as she waits. With a brood of eight, she turns to Clay-Boy, her eldest, to take up the role of ‘man of the house’ at the tender age of fifteen. As the story progresses, Clay-Boy is not only playing the role of man, but also must engage in a trek to locate his father and bring him home for the holidays. As Christmas Eve turns to night, the Spencers engage in their own family traditions, meagre as they may be in the midst of the Depression. It is not Santa for whom they wait this Christmas of 1933, but Clay and his safe homecoming to spend time with those he cherishes most. Sure to become an annual tradition for holiday reading lists, Hamner Jr. entertains and depicts the era so effectively.

I grew up watching THE HOMECOMING as part of the annual Christmas preparation. The book was on hand, but I never took the time to read it. Doing so now, I realise how special this story is and the tradition is one I will continue. I wish not to stand on a soapbox, but the holidays are about love and support, not the material things. Hamner Jr. makes that known throughout this novel, as well as in SPENCER’S MOUNTAIN. Do take some time to read them and enjoy all they have to offer.

Kudos, Mr. Hamner Jr., for instilling in me the annual reminder that love trumps all. Merriest of Christmases to all!

Spencer’s Mountain, by Earl Hamner, Junior.

Four stars (of five)

Earl Hamner Jr. invites readers to take a trip back to the 1930s and explore the Blue Ridge Mountains in rural Virginia, where the Spencers have lived for generations. Clay and Olivia are trying to raise a family the best they can, helped by the eldest, Clay-Boy, and the strong-willed community. As the story progresses, the narrative takes the reader through some of the adventures undertaken by members of the family, but there are two story arcs that weave their way throughout: Clay’s trying to build a house for his family with his own two hands, and Clay-Boy’s attempt to get accepted to college. While one dream hinges on the demise of the other, the Spencers come together through thick and thin, putting the larger family before their own interests. A great story for those who loved the Waltons, or anyone who seeks to see the power of working together, treating family as a team and not a collection of rivals.

I am familiar with Hamner Jr.’s other Walton-based story, THE HOMECOMING (which is also next on my list to read), and so when given the chance to read this book, I did not hesitate. Those familiar with The Homecoming, in its book or television movie form, will see many of the stories that arise from that tale are told in greater detail herein. Hamner Jr. seeks not only to tell the story of the Spencers, but also to show how poverty need not impede a family’s ability to live a happy life, even in the Depression. Readers who can divorce themselves from the rigours of fast-paced thrillers or superficial pieces of fiction will enjoy this tale that warms the heart and brings a tear to the eye at the same time.

Kudos, Mr. Hamner Jr. for your wonderful tale. I shall indulge in the book form of THE HOMECOMING and perhaps check out THE WALTONS, which aired before I was able to enjoy this television classic.

The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly

Four stars (of five)

Connelly brings Harry Bosch back in yet another wonderful mystery, with a new partner, and new cold-case structure. A man shot ten years earlier finally succumbs to his injuries, allowing Bosch and his newly-honed partner, Lucy Soto, to open an investigation. They trace it back to a sniper who might have mistakenly focussed on the wrong target, leading to a larger fallout and more blood spilled. When a political heavyweight’s name comes up during the investigation, Bosch and Soto begin pressing harder to fit the pieces together, all while trying to keep things on the down low. Late one night, Bosch discovers that Soto has some of her own interests in a cold case, an apartment fire that brought much tragedy to her childhood. As they work the case, connections to a bank robbery have haunting parallels, and Bosch takes Soto under his wing to delve deeper into the investigation, even if the pain level reaches personal angst. Connelly keeps Bosch alive on these pages and, as always, ends the story with a BANG and keeps fans waiting for the next instalment, hoping it will come soon.

Connelly continues his masterful spinning the Bosch tales with another wonderful story. Having done the complete ‘Harry Bosch-athon’ a few years ago, I know all too well how intricate the stories can be and how detailed things can get. Characters crossing series and playing cameo roles in the larger arc, all of which is handled by Connelly in an effortless manner. Bosch just IS and will always have that presence, no matter what comes across his path. The new television series is sure to touch on that and make Bosch fans want even more. This author and this character are gold mines, not to be scoffed at, by any stretch.

Kudos, Mr. Connelly for this wonderful addition. Bosch has the magic touch and you bring him to life so effortlessly.

The Hanging, by Soren and Lotte Hammer

Three stars (of five)

Soren and Lotte Hammer enter the literary scene with a highly thought-provoking thriller that will keep the reader pondering well after closing the book’s back cover. Five men are discovered hanging in a school gymnasium, their bodies mutilated. The case is assigned to Detective Inspector Konrad Simonsen and his team, who begin asking the poignant questions as soon as they arrive at the scene. Battling with Danish media outlets, Simonsen must address rumours that the five men are pedophiles before he can get a positive identification on any of the bodies. When the school’s janitor is suspected of having something to do with the murders, he commits suicide, only heightening the suspicions. While Simonsen continues to investigate, the media fan flames and turns Copenhagen into a veritable vigilante city, spreading across Denmark with every passing hour. In the background, The Climber, the apparent mastermind behind the entire execution, has his own agenda to keep order and keep Simonsen from muzzling his larger plan. Hammer keeps the story moving effectively, though the drawn out analyses makes it jilted, especially for a debut novel. That said, having not read the novel in its original Danish, it could be a novel lost in translation.

I discovered Hammer by fluke, having read a dust jacket ‘praise phrase’ by a new favourite author of mine, Lars Kepler. While Kepler penned that Hammer’s work was “the best Danish crime fiction in years”, I am worried of the state of Danish crime fiction if this can be true. The novel had some great aspects, though it was by no means as exciting or thrilling as some other Scandinavian crime fiction I have read lately (Kepler and Larsson). Hammer take the issue of pedophilia and the media reaction to it, making that a wonderful social issue to address, though at times its presentation is marred by odd character interactions and sub-plots I could not fully digest. The means by which media fan flames and try to create issues for their own benefit is poignant in this day and age of 24 hour news cycles and how sentiment leads to reactionary behaviour, even without fact or a foundation.

Kudos, Mr. and Madam Hammer for this interesting look into your crime fiction abilities. I look forward to the next instalment before I pass complete judgment.