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The 500

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The 500, a first novel by a Harvard graduate and former reporter for The Atlantic, succeeds as a zippy beach read. Other reviewers have compared it repeatedly to The Firm, and I too find the parallels so strong that it mars the story's originality, making it feel like a hipper, amped up variation of the story that put John Grisham on the map. Like Mitch in The Firm, Mike Ford is hand-selected by the leader of a high-end boutique that looks to indoctrinate our best and brightest into its shady culture. Sure there are some differences. The Davies Group is a Washington consulting firm rather than a law firm, and Mike's criminal past is the antithesis of Mitch's squeaky clean resume.Despite the fact that the hook and basic story line are distractingly derivative, the novel comes across as fresh and engaging because of Mike's winning first-person narrative voice. This guy is a trip, roasting the Beltway's obsession with power, providing an insider's view of D.C.'s landmarks and party-scene debauchery, and treating the reader to all manner of insights into the mindset and tricks of the con man. Mike's ireverent attitude and banter manage to power the story clean through the beginning and middle, but his bottomless bag of tricks wears thin toward the end; his ability to wiggle out of impossible situtations and the irrationality of some of his decisions seem written purely for Hollywood's benefit.As you can tell, I have mixed feelings about this novel. Fives stars worth of fun, three stars worth of substance. Hopefully the film adaptation will smooth over some of the rough edges and improve on the book in a way that The Firm's adaptation did not.-Kevin Joseph, author of "The Champion Maker"
The Last Refuge: A Dewey Andreas Novel

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The Last Refuge, third in a series featuring former SEAL and Delta Dewey Andreas, serves both as a platform for the author's right-wing politics and an entertaining thriller for those who prefer the over-the-top action style of Clancy to the more thoughtful, nuanced writing of Furst, le Carre, and Silva. Ben Coes, with his background as a White House speechwriter, infuses the novel with enough authentic-seeming detail about Washington's three-letter agencies and world politics to give his plot a timely, plausible feel. Dewey's mission is two-fold. First, he feels duty-bound to rescue Israeli Special Forces officer, Kohl Meir, a man who recently saved Dewey's life. Meir has been kidnapped on American soil by the Iranians and is held in Iran's most secure prison, where he is to be put on trial and executed in a publicized spectacle. But, as if this task weren't challenging enough, Dewey also learns that Iran has completed its first nuclear weapon and has imminent plans to destroy Tel Aviv. Because of a mole in the Israeli Government, who would tip Iran's hand and force immediate detonation of the bomb in the event it becomes apparent that Israel knows of the device, and a new American president who favors diplomacy with Iran, Dewey is forced to undertake his mission without the backing of either the American or Israeli Government.Coes follows through with this intriguing set-up quite competently, building suspense and tying up the loose ends in a satisfying resolution. There remains, however, considerable room for improvement in his craft. His use of dialogue tags is excessive, the prose a bit clunky in places, and some of the action scenes involving Dewey too far-fetched to be believable. The ending also feels rushed, as Dewey's ability to extricate himself from his perilous predicament comes across as too facile. In future installments, I'd like to see Coes try to achieve the same suspense through use of intriguing plot device and more believable action sequences, with a little less emphasis on his political leanings. In other words, a little more le Carre and a little less Clancy would make his series more appealing to me.-Kevin Joseph, author of "The Champion Maker"
Super Sad True Love Story

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I had really high hopes for this novel. The fusion of love story and near-future satire held appeal, and the lure of positive media reviews pulled me in. While I appreciated Shteyngart's satirical vision of a United States whose extended credit and Internet-bred illiteracy cause it to degenerate into an unstable police state at the financial mercy of the Chinese, the love story between Lenny Abramov and and Eunice Park proved somewhat plotless, unconvincing and unsatisfying. I got the whole connection the author drew between their Russian and Korean immigrant families, and the common familial work ethic pressuring them to realize the fleeting American dream, but the love connection seemed little more than a contrived set-up for inevitable disappointment. The plot, too, was underwhelming, as Sheteyngart seemed content riffing on the absurd trends of the media-driven day, like the ubiquitous credit poles that constantly display citizens' credit ratings as a measure of their value to society, rating everyone's hotness on the apparat devices that connect all citizens and provide access to vast amounts of personal data, and pursuing all forms of life-extension treatments to deny acknowledging one's mortality. Lenny's boss, the seventy-year-old Joshie Goldmann, a walking charicature of the life-extension obsession, worked as a super-father figure and ultimate romantic foil, but the conflict generated by Joshie and the collapse of the American economy failed to propel the plot forward with sufficient force. The ending, in its attempt to portray a novel based on Lenny's diary entries and Eunice's e-mail correspondence as the savior of traditional literary values, also had a hollow ring to it. This is an imaginative author and hopefully his next novel will pay more heed to the dying literary qualities he seems to value.
Zero Day: A Jeff Aiken Novel

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The idea that the next major terrorist strike on the U.S. will come in the form of a cyber attack is not an implausible one. And Microsoft Technical Fellow Mark Russinovich holds the right credentials to infuse this doomsday thriller with a believable scientific core. His detailed discussions of rootkits, encryption, and the finer points of virus troubleshooting may not be for everyone, but the quick, staccato pacing of the plot keeps the pages flipping in spite of the scientific content. In fact, my biggest problem with the novel is that the constant flitting between characters and viewpoints renders the narrative too scattered and makes it hard to forge a close connection with the characters. The dialogue and overall writing style is also kind of clunky in places, as is often the case when scientists turn their hand to fiction. That said, Zero Game qualifies as a timely, competent suspense thriller, laced with frightening examples of how a sophisticated computer virus attack perpetrated by a small group of limited resources can cause calamitous results for our airlines, nuclear reactors, hospitals, factories, banks and other fundamental institutions comprising our economy.-Kevin Joseph, author of The Champion Maker
One Day

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I selected this book to review for the Vine program because the title had been bludgeoned into my brain by the publishers's non-stop marketing blitz. Everywhere I turn, someone's touting One Day as the summer's must read. A female coworker of mine (who has completely different tastes in books than I) even recommended it to me while I was already reading it.Thankfully, One Day is the real deal. With Emma and Dexter, David Nicholls has not only managed to create a romance that even guys can relate to as well as two characters who are believable as any flesh-and-blood people you'll ever meet. Dexter's a lovable cad, whose laid-back hipness and natural good looks propel him to early fame as a TV persona and generate an endless queue of hot women to pick from, while Emma's a brilliant writer who's lack of self-confidence leaves her trapped in unfulfilling jobs and relationships. Sure it adhered to the basic structure of the modern romance -- two attracting-opposites can't seem to get past all of sorts of obstacles between them and become the romantic couple they were meant to be. But what made this novel more believable than most in this genre is that the obstacles didn't have the usual contrived feel about them. Instead the author showed how a hook-up at the end of college ignited enough interest to create a friendship bond that was just strong enough to keep them in touch over a twenty year period, yet not strong enough to overcome the ways in which they grew apart from one another in their maturity into adulthood. The one-day-a-year plot structure, a cheap storytelling gimmick in less-skilled hands, worked because it actually enhanced this story. And I loved how the first day was skipped and only recounted at the end, heightening the emotional impact. Part of the marketing hype centers on the fact that the movie adaptation is already in production. This is one romance I will let my wife drag me to see without the usual whining and complaining.
The Art Forger

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I enjoyed The Art Forger, both as a cleverly-plotted mystery/thriller and for the authentic-feeling detail it uses to describe the way in which old oil paintings can be reproduced or forged. The plot is built on a real crime, the 1990 Gardner Museum art heist. Thirteeen works of art were stolen, making it the largest unsolved art theft in history. From there, B.A. Shapiro fictionlizes the facts, as gallery owner Aiden Markel suddenly propositions disgraced art reporducer Clair Roth with an offer she can't refuse.Markel claims to have the stolen Degas masterpiece "After the Bath" in his posession and is willing to pay Roth a large sum of money and show her paintings in his gallery if she paints a forgery that fools the art authenticators. When Roth initially balks at the offer based on ethical and legal concerns, Markel rationalizes the crime by promising to return the original to the Gardner Museum after he collects a handsome fee by selling the forged copy through a chain of middlemen that he believes makes it impossible to trace the transaction to either of them.Roth's eventual acceptance of this Faustian bargain requires the reader to understand why she's been black-balled by the art establishment, a back story involving a former boyfriend whose masterpiece painting was actually Roth's own handiwork, and why passing off the Degal forgery as an original would provide the kind of validation and redemption she seeks. Once the events are set in motion, Roth begins to suspect there is more to the game that she was led to believe. Despite her suspicions that the "After the Bath" Markel possesses is itself a forgery, she becomes romatically involved with him and continues to work on forging the painting, all the while sleuthing to try to validate her theory. Predicatably, Roth and Markel are not as insulated from their misdeeds as they had hoped, forcing Roth to solve the mystery of the stolen painting's origins before their lives are ruined. While Claire and Roth are not the most believable or likeable of characters, I found the writing to be well above what I encounter in most thrillers, the plot twisty enough to keep me guessing for a while, and the descriptions of the art world to ring true. This is a novel I would recommend.-Kevin Joseph, author of The Champion Maker
Sex on the Moon

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Sex on the Moon held my attention as a fascinating character study, but it was not the Right Stuff/Ocean's Eleven style thriller it was marketed to be on the book jacket. Mezrich laid solid groundwork for Thad Roberts's character flaws, showing the heartbreaking rejection he received from his Mormon parents for having an intimate relationship with his girlfriend. His whole life can thus be understood as an effort to compensate for this rejection through the creation of a larger-than-life persona and the relentless pursuit of a nearly unobattainable goal -- to become an astronaut.While the moon rock caper is captivating in its audacity and execution, it comprises a relative small portion of the narrative. For that reason, readers expecting a non-stop thrill ride will likely be disappointed. Other, more patient and thoughtful readers, will find a lot to appreciate in this thoroughly-researched and psychologically-astute study of a young man who flies much too close to the sun.-Kevin Joseph, author of The Champion Maker
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The Grove

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The most distinctive aspect of this murder mystery is the unreliable narrator, Dexter McCray, a reformed ex-con and psychiatric patient whose life is spiraling back toward madness since the death of his young daughter and decision to stop taking his medication. When Dexter awakens from a drinking binge with no memory of the previous night's events and finds a teenage girl's dead body lying in the field near his house, he fears the absolute worst. Despite the fact that the local sheriff happens to be a childhood friend, the unmedicated Dexter makes a rash decision to solve the murder himself before going to the authorities. And this is just the first in a string of progressively worse decisions, as Dexter's ham-fisted efforts at investigating the murder draw more and more attention to his imbalanced state of mind. Drunk almost the entire novel and haunted by a macabre vision of the dead girl who talks him out of making rational decisions, the Dexter's mad antics ratchet up the suspense to a nearly unbearable level. How many more bad decisions can Dexter make, we wonder, before someone finally suspects he's the murderer? John Rector's spare prose and dark atmosphere work effectively, and the interplay between Dexter's memories of his dead daughter and sympathies toward the murdered girl in his field gives the story some convincing psychological depth. The one thing that kept me from awarding five stars is the lack of believability in some of the later plot points, which allows Dexter to go undetected by his Sheriff friend and wife far longer than seems plausible. But if you can get past this plausibility challenge and are not turned off by some graphic images, you will likely find The Grove to be a unique and compelling mystery.
The Last Israelis

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The Last Israelis is unlike any thriller I've read before, and I mean that in a (mostly) good way. Its basic setting and concept call to mind military thrillers like The Hunt for Red October, but Noah Beck approaches the storytelling craft in a unique way. Beck is less interested in penning intricate plot twists and pulse-pounding action scenes than he is in creating a plausible doomsday scenario that highlights the contemporary threat that Iran's nuclear ambitions pose to the State of Israel. This one is right out of the newspaper folks, and should be required reading for our world leaders.Beck's interest in showcasing intellectual debate between his characters becomes evident early on, when the crew of the Dolphin is granted a brief shore leave to reunite with their families. He takes this opportunity to establish the back story for Captain Daniel Zion, his impotent deputy Yisrael, and other key members of the submarine's thirty-five-man crew. This stage-setting embues his characters with distinct personalities and motivations that later color the positions they take when the Dolphin loses contact with its command structure and must determine whether to unleash its arsenal of ten nuclear warheads on Iran.The novel grabbed and held my interest because of the authenticity of the politics, the realistic description of the submariners' craft, and the thought-provoking quality of the existential debate that occurs among the crew. In particular, I found the arguments over the moral justification for targeting a civilian population with weapons of mass destruction to be nuanced and thorough.But The Last Israelis interested me more in the vein of a compelling essay or punchy op-ed piece, than in the manner of a great novel. Beck has a tendency to tell rather than show, as many passages serve the single purpose of conveying information rather than moving the plot forward. He also tends to over-use flashbacks and lapse into lengthy dialogue that sounds more like an exchange between college professors than banter among seamen. As Beck becomes more comfortable with the craft of storytelling, I expect that he will find ways to influence the public debate on critical subjects in a novel that feels a little less like an essay.
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