“Blacktop Wasteland” by S.A. Cosby

Blacktop WastelandI was delighted to be invited by the publisher to review one of the most anticipated thrillers of the summer, S.A. Cosby’s Blacktop Wasteland. In a recent essay, Cosby wrote: “In my book I address many issues that I faced growing up in poverty in the South. And while I never resorted to a life of crime to try to grab my piece of the American dream, I know people who did. I did my best to examine those people and deconstruct the choices they made while acknowledging the systemic barriers that give so many of us so few options.”

Beauregard “Bug” Montage is trying his best to live an honest life as a husband, father and small-business owner. His own dad, a legendary getaway driver, left when Beauregard was a teenager, and never came back. His son inherited his souped-up Duster, and his almost preternatural ability to drive fearlessly and with finesse.

As the book begins, Beauregard needs money desperately—business is slow at his car repair shop ever since a bigger, slicker operation opened up in town; his mom’s nursing home is demanding thousands of dollars; his daughter’s about to start college; his son needs braces. “He had a credit card with about $200 left on it. He could use that to pay the light bill. But that would burn up his budget for supplies. He was’t robbing Peter to pay Paul. They had both ganged up on him and were mugging him.”

He decides to do One Last Job in a last-ditch effort to solve his financial problems. What could possibly go wrong?

Beauregard agrees to serve as the wheelman for a couple of criminals who are planning to rob a jewelry store. It seems like an easy payday, but one mistake leads to another, and Beauregard finally has to confront his ultimate nightmare: by trying to provide for his family, he’s put them in jeopardy.

This is primarily a sleek, fast-paced crime novel, but it’s suffused with tragic elements, too; it tells a story of trying to overcome your family history, and never quite being able to come to terms with the ghosts of your past. Beauregard, who served time in juvenile hall, desperately wants his children to have the opportunities he never had. He remembers his old guidance counselor, who “had tried his best to get him to consider going back to school when he got out. Maybe college. Beauregard knew Mr. Skorzeny had meant well. Unlike a lot of the staff at Jefferson Davis Reformatory, he didn’t view boys like him as lost causes. What Mr. Skorzeny didn’t understand, what he couldn’t understand, was that boys like Beauregard didn’t have the luxury of options. No father. A mother who was one flat tire and a bad day away from a nervous breakdown, and grandparents who had lived and died in a constant state of abject poverty. For boys like Beauregard, college was the stuff of dreams. Mr. Skorzeny might as well have told him to go to Mars.”

Beauregard makes some bad decisions and does things many people would find unforgivable, but by the end of the book, my heart broke for him nevertheless. This is a bravura performance from a new author to watch.

“The Talented Mr. Varg” by Alexander McCall Smith and “Three Hours in Paris” by Cara Black

The Talented Mr. VargIt’s possible that I just picked an inopportune time to read the second book in the Detective Varg series; I enjoyed the first one, but hoo boy, reading The Talented Mr. Varg was about as much fun as the time I got lost in a nondescript Stockholm suburb trying to find IKEA (true story).

A send-up of brutal Swedish noir, the Varg novels chronicle the Department of Sensitive Crimes, a division of the Malmö police which deals with the sort of minor mysteries Mma Ramotswe investigates at the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. That’s obviously not a problem for me, as I’ve read all 20 of those books, but The Talented Mr. Varg spends too little time solving puzzles in favor of meandering digressions about Swedish-Russian relations, bridge construction, dog behavior, prostate problems, tattoos, electric razors…

“Those razors. I have one. It’s waterproof, you know. Well, you can’t put the whole thing in the water—you wouldn’t put the body bit—but you can certainly put the heads under the tap. They have a tap symbol on them, you see, and that’s how you tell whether your electric razor is waterproof or not.” This is said by a colleague of Varg’s known for “his strange world of rambling association,” but all too often, the whole book feels like a series of rambling associations.

Three Hours in ParisThe polar opposite of Varg is Cara Black’s Three Hours in Paris, which provides pulse-pounding excitement from first page to last. Here I must insert a disclaimer stating that Cara is a friend of mine, someone I would regularly meet up with for espresso in the Before Times, but I’m confident I would have enjoyed this book even if I hadn’t known her to be a supremely kind, generous and thoughtful person.

In the book’s first 25 pages, American sniper Kate Rees loses her naval officer husband and baby daughter in a Luftwaffe attack (she met her husband, a Welshman, while she was studying in Paris, and moved with him to the Orkney Islands). Vowing revenge on the Germans, Kate’s incredible skill as a markswoman, thanks to a youth spent learning to hunt on a ranch in rural Oregon, cause her to be recruited by British intelligence. She is sent to Paris to assassinate Hitler. She fails, obviously—this book doesn’t take place in an alternate timeline where Hitler is bumped off in 1940—but there are still 325 pages to go, and there are thrills, spills and close calls aplenty. Fans of spy novels, World War II history, Paris, or strong and resourceful female heroines will all find something to like in this book.

“Girls Like Us” by Cristina Alger

Girls Like UsI read Cristina Alger’s Girls Like Us right after watching the HBO movie “Bad Education,” and by coincidence, both of them—one a work of fiction, one based on a true story—take place on Long Island. While the film is set in an upscale community not far from Manhattan, Girls shows a different side of the island, one in which “gangs… are still prevalent. Violent crime is high; drugs are everywhere. For all the wealth in Suffolk County, nearly half of the Third Precinct lives at or just above the poverty line.”

However, towns both rich and poor have their problems, and while “Bad Education” showcases a couple of corrupt school administrators, Girls Like Us features a Jeffrey Epstein-like character who preys on young women who are hard up and desperate for cash. FBI Agent Nell Flynn thought she had left Suffolk County behind long ago, but when her estranged father dies in a motorcycle accident, she comes back to settle his estate. Nell’s mother died when she was young, and her police officer dad was an abusive alcoholic; she couldn’t move away quickly enough.

On medical and administrative leave after killing a man in the line of duty, Nell has plenty of time to work on preparing the family home for sale. But when the mutilated body of a young woman is found nearby, Lee Davis, her father’s partner on the police force and a friend of Nell’s from their high school days, asks her to help out. Another corpse had been discovered in the area a few months prior; both women had been dismembered and wrapped in burlap. Nell’s dad had been working on that case when he died. The second body and similar M.O. indicates that a serial killer could be at large, but the chief of detectives doesn’t want to bring in the FBI: “He’s about to retire and the last thing he wants is mass hysteria over a serial killer in Suffolk County,” Lee tells her. However, a little low-key, unofficial investigating by a visiting agent would be fine.

Nell agrees, and the two of them begin to uncover plenty of secrets in Suffolk County, the kind of secrets people would kill to keep. Some of them concern her father; was he really trying to solve that first murder, or was his goal to cover it up? Even her mother’s long-ago death comes back to haunt her, as a local journalist has been reporting on the man convicted of her murder, believing that he may have been coerced into confessing. At first, Nell is furious with her, but then she realizes that she must follow the truth, no matter where it leads her.

There are a lot of different threads to follow in this fast-paced book; in the early chapters, we learn that the man Nell shot was an associate of the Russian Mafia, and she’s worried that has made her a target. That storyline sort of peters out, though, which makes me wonder if this is the first novel in a series, and Nell will be back to do battle with criminals bent on revenge. In Girls Like Us, Alger captures the rugged beauty of coastal Long Island, and she has created a worthy heroine in Nell, a crusader who risks her own life in order to seek justice for a pair of vulnerable young women.

“Fake Truth” by Lee Goldberg

Fake TruthI’ve always had a policy here at the blog that I do not review books written by my clients, but during the pandemic, all bets are off, so here is a disclaimer: I designed Lee Goldberg’s website and I also work on his newsletter and various other projects. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Lee is one of my favorite clients. He’s a really great guy as well as a brilliant raconteur.

So it’s possible that I’m not the most objective source when it comes to reviewing his novels, but I was actually a big fan of his work before I started working with him, and I happily devour his books as soon as they come out. My pre-ordered copy of Fake Truth dropped onto my Kindle on Monday night, and I started reading it immediately.

This is the third book in Goldberg’s Ian Ludlow series, about a thriller novelist whose seemingly-outlandish plots have a bizarre tendency to actually come true. It kicks off shortly after the events in the second Ludlow novel, Killer Thriller, in which Ian and his assistant Margo (who now works as an undercover agent for the CIA) foiled a plot to assassinate the presidents of France and the U.S. This time around, Ian is suffering from writer’s block and needs to come up with ideas for his next spy novel. What was supposed to be a simple research trip to Portugal winds up thrusting him and Margo into the middle of a nefarious Russian plot, and once again, he will have to rely on his skills as as storyteller to get himself—and the U.S. government—out of a jam.

These books have high body counts and plenty of action, but they’re hilariously tongue-in-cheek, kind of like the mid-period James Bond films Ian is constantly referencing. My favorite running gag in the series is “Hollywood and the Vine,” the atrocious TV cop show about “half-man, half-plant, all-cop” Charlie Vine, which Ludlow once wrote for. (Goldberg has plenty of experience scripting shows of various quality—sure, he penned several episodes of the beloved series “Monk,” but he also put in some time at “The New Adventures of Flipper.”) In Fake Truth, Ian finds himself back in the saddle, forced to write a script for the show which he describes as “a horrendous piece of shit”: “To get into the right frame of mind, he’d had to get into character and feel as unhappy and creatively unfulfilled as he had when he was writing and producing the show. That feeling still lingered, like the aftertaste of vomiting.”

Goldberg’s books are always so smoothly written and easy to read; even at a time when my attention span often feels fractured, I was able to speed through this novel and enjoy every last page. I even laughed out loud a few times. Fake Truth is a genuinely welcome diversion.

“The Night Agent” by Matthew Quirk

The Night AgentPeter Sutherland is an FBI agent working in the White House, where he is tasked with doing an extremely dull job: waiting for the phone to ring. Peter is assigned to the night action desk in the Situation Room, where an emergency line “sat on his desk in silence as it had nearly all of his last 284 nights on the watch. In those endless hours between dusk and dawn, he would stare at it, willing it to ring.”

When the phone finally does ring, Peter may wish it had stayed silent, since a young woman’s desperate plea—“He’s here. He’s inside. He’s going to kill me.”—leads him on a chase through Washington, D.C. that nearly costs him his life, and exposes him to some of the country’s most dangerous and deadly secrets.

One of the reasons Peter found himself stuck on desk duty is because his father, who also worked for the FBI, was accused of leaking the names of Russian embassy staff who were secretly working for the U.S. The Russians were brought back to Moscow and executed; tainted by scandal, Peter’s father got drunk and drove his car into a highway divider. Was he really guilty of betraying his country? “The truth died with him,” but Peter “inherited the suspicions, the presumed guilt, along with his father’s name, as if it ran in the blood.” Because of his father’s legacy, Peter has always been a man who plays by the rules, never steps out of line, and unconditionally trusts his superiors. But when he begins to suspect that there’s a Russian mole in the White House, he learns that the only person he can rely on is himself:

“He’d been so careful for so many years, doing everything right, following every rule. He knew part of the reason why: he was afraid of what would happen if he strayed, afraid of finding out that he was his father’s son, an all-American face wrapped around something ruthless, dark, and lethal. And now he took that inheritance as a gift. He needed to survive.”

The idea of the Russians (led, of course, by a Putin-like figure) having kompromat on people at high levels of the U.S. government is certainly a timely one. When I picked up The Night Agent, it looked like a pretty hefty novel, coming in at about 420 pages, but once I started reading, the book grabbed me immediately, and I finished it in a couple of sittings. With its short, punchy, action-packed chapters, The Night Agent is a slick and satisfying thriller.

“The Whisper Network” by Chandler Baker

The Whisper NetworkA couple years ago, a young female journalist started a Google spreadsheet called “Shitty Media Men,” aimed at warning women about male co-workers with reputations for sexual misconduct. “The anonymous, crowdsourced document was a first attempt at solving what has seemed like an intractable problem: how women can protect ourselves from sexual harassment and assault,” wrote the spreadsheet’s creator in an article for New York Magazine’s The Cut. “One long-standing partial remedy that women have developed is the whisper network, informal alliances that pass on open secrets and warn women away from serial assaulters.”

The problem with Shitty Media Men, of course, is that unlike old-fashioned whisper networks, it was right there in black & white, ready to be screenshotted and shared. There was a swift backlash once the list went viral, with detractors claiming that it would allow vindictive anonymous accusers to derail the lives and careers of innocent men without granting them due process. However, several prominent males did wind up losing their jobs in the wake of the list, most notably New Republic editor Leon Wieseltier.

It seemed inevitable that a fictionalized version of this juicy story would provide material for a novel. In Chandler Baker’s Whisper Network, it’s the “BAD Men” (Beware of Asshole Dallas Men) list which starts the ball rolling. The action takes place at an athletic apparel company called Truviv (think: Nike), where the general counsel, Ames Garrett, seems like a shoo-in to become CEO after the unexpected death of the current chief executive. Sloane Glover, an in-house lawyer at Truviv, adds Ames to the BAD Men list (“Issues with physical and interpersonal boundaries at the office; pursued sexual relationships with subordinate co-workers; sexist”), hoping to derail his rise to the top, but once the names on the spreadsheet are made public, Ames dies, seemingly of suicide. Suddenly, Ames starts being treated as a victim of what one local newspaper columnist refers to as a “feminist witch hunt.”

Baker smartly adds several complicating factors to the story: for instance, Sloane and Ames had had a sexual relationship at one point. Ames had just hired a new, pretty young female attorney, and Sloane is pretty sure he’s intent on making her his next conquest. In one particularly inspired touch, Sloane and her two best friends at work, Ardie and Grace, conduct clandestine meetings in the legally-mandated private room in which new mom Grace pumps breast milk.

The novel is told in the voice of an omniscient narrator, who makes statements about the general plight of women in modern America which female readers will no doubt find highly relatable: “We had guilt of every flavor: We had working-mom guilt, childless guilt, guilt because we’d turned down a social obligation, guilt because we’d accepted an invitation we knew we didn’t have time for, guilt for turning away work and for not turning it down when we felt we were already being taken advantage of.”

Whisper Network is an honest-to-goodness page turner (I stayed up past my bedtime in order to finish it, because I simply had to find out what would happen next), as well as a book I’d place in a time capsule to show what life was like for women in as the first fifth of the 21st century comes to a close. Would a female reader in 2039 feel satisfied that the lives of working women have improved significantly during the past 20 years? Let’s hope that’s the case.

“Blue Moon” by Lee Child

Blue MoonWhenever Jack Reacher steps off a Greyhound bus, mayhem is sure to follow, and that is certainly the case in Blue Moon, the 25th novel in the series. A fellow passenger, an elderly man with a thick envelope in his jacket pocket, catches Reacher’s eye. Then he notices another rider, a young man, staring hungrily at the envelope. So when the elderly man gets off the bus, followed by the younger man, Reacher decides to disembark too, figuring he may needed to foil a mugging.

That’s exactly what happens, and Reacher finds out that the elderly man needed that cash in order to pay off a loan shark. The unnamed city he lives in is controlled by the Eastern European mob, which has neatly divided the territory into two equal parts: “The west of the city was run by Ukrainians. The east was run by Albanians. The demarcation line between them was gerrymandered as tight as a congressional district.”

The arrangement may work for the mobsters, but it’s making a lot of other people in town miserable. But can Reacher take on two well-armed organized crime factions all by himself and live to tell the tale? If your answer to that question is “No way, that’s insane!” then you’ve obviously never read a Lee Child novel before.

Reacher does team up with a handful of locals, including a beautiful waitress, but Reacher himself is always at the center of things, and Blue Moon’s body count ultimately reaches stratospheric levels, to the point where it becomes mordantly comical. It’s always fun to see how Reacher manages to get himself out of a jam, but in this case, the answer is usually “grab a gun from a bad guy and kill a whole bunch of people.” If this Grand Guignol adventure is ever filmed for Amazon’s upcoming Reacher series, the fake-blood budget will be off the charts. All in all, I greatly preferred the previous novel in the series, Past Tense; this one is for Reacher completists only.

“The Warehouse” by Rob Hart

The WarehouseThe first thing I saw when I opened The Warehouse was the dedication: “For Maria Fernandes.” As a rule, I don’t pay a lot of attention to dedications in books, unless I happen to recognize the name of the dedicatee. In this case, I did not; I assumed it was a friend or relative of the author, turned the page, and didn’t think anything else of it.

Until, that is, I finished the book and read the acknowledgments section. The final paragraph explains who Maria Fernandes is and why the book is dedicated to her, and at that point it all makes sense and has an unexpectedly powerful impact. (If you read the book—and you should—I urge you not to skip ahead; I guarantee that The Warehouse is such an exciting novel that you’ll be completely caught up in it.)

The Warehouse takes place a few decades from now. Global warming has taken its toll, and we learn that something called the Black Friday Massacres caused virtually all brick & mortar retailers in the U.S. to close. What’s left is Cloud: a sort of Amazon.com on steroids. All of their products are delivered by drone. The company employs a huge segment of the American populace and houses them in live-work facilities. The employees wear color-coded shirts depending on what job they are assigned, and are paid in credits, which they can use for everything from delicious CloudBurgers to an extra five minutes in their morning shower. CloudBand bracelets keep track of where the employees are, what they’re supposed to be doing at any given moment when they’re on the job, and stores their credits.

As the book begins, we meet two new employees: Paxton, a former prison security guard who quit his job in order to form his own company, which was a success until Cloud gradually forced him to tighten his margins, forcing him out of business (a story no doubt inspired by the real-life facts in the 2003 Fast Company piece “The WalMart You Don’t Know”); and Zinnia, the code name adopted by a corporate spy who’s been hired to gain some inside information on Cloud. Because of his prior occupation, Paxton is assigned to security at Cloud. He takes an immediate fancy to Zinnia, and she decides a man in his position could be of use. Paxton is genuinely head over heels, while Zinnia is trying to figure out how she can fulfill what is an insanely difficult mission, considering the surveillance culture of Cloud.

Zinnia and Paxton’s stories are interspersed with blog entries written by the terminally ill billionaire founder of Cloud, Gibson Wells, who plans to reveal the identity of his hand-picked successor while on a final journey to visit as many Cloud locations as possible. Wells adopts a folksy “we’re all family” tone, but it’s clear to the reader that what he has accomplished is the ultimate goal of many corporate titans in the U.S.: privatizing absolutely everything, from education to the FAA. (There’s no mention made of who the president of the country is, but whoever it is, he or she probably has a good deal less power than Gibson Wells.) The mandatory live/work aspect of employment at Cloud also ensures that they control every facet of their workers’ lives.

As Wells prepares to visit Zinnia and Paxton’s facility, the novel continues to reach new heights of suspense as our two protagonists get ready for the big day in very different ways. This is not a particularly optimistic story, but it is one that will make readers consider where we’re headed and whether or not we want to hand corporations the power granted to Cloud, which makes even Microsoft and WalMart look like small potatoes.

“The Liar’s Girl” by Catherine Ryan Howard

The Liar's GirlThe Liar’s Girl is another 2019 Best Novel Edgar nominee, and another one I may not have picked up otherwise. The jacket copy begins: “Will Hurley was an attractive, charming, and impressive student at Dublin’s elite St. John’s College—and Ireland’s most prolific serial killer.” Usually the words “serial killer” make a book an automatic “nope!” for me, but The Liar’s Girl takes that trope and gives it a far more interesting spin.

The novel focuses on Alison Smith, a young woman who left her sleepy hometown of Cork behind to attend St. John’s College, along with her best friend, Liz. During her freshman year, Alison meets Will Hurley, and falls madly in love: “I’d never felt that way about any other person. It was like the world had been dim and flat and now suddenly it was in Technicolor 3-D.” Liz often seems like a (resentful) third wheel in their relationship, but everything is fine until girls at their college start winding up dead, drowned in the Grand Canal near campus. Then Liz becomes a victim, Will is arrested, and all hell breaks loose.

Alison drops out of school, moves to the Netherlands and tries to recover from the unbelievable trauma of finding out that your boyfriend killed your best friend and a bunch of other women as well. Ten years later, with Will still behind bars, female St. John’s students once again start turning up dead in the canal. An Irish policeman arrives on her doorstep one day, telling Alison that Will claims to have information about the new spate of murders, but he will only share it with her. So she goes back to Ireland for the first time in a decade, and is forced to confront her past.

The Liar’s Girl is a genuine page-turner, which is probably why it scored that Edgar nomination—if you’re a fan of thrillers, this is the type of book which will keep you up late until every last question has been answered. My main caveat is that the book does contain “inside the mind of the serial killer” chapters (something I’m never a fan of; can’t we just assume they’re terrible people and keep them at arm’s length, instead of trying to discern a psychological motive for their killings?). Other than those parts, though, I did enjoy reading this book.

“Past Tense” by Lee Child

Past TenseAfter reading 2015’s truly disturbing Make Me, I kind of swore off Lee Child for a while, as it struck me as more horror than thriller. But then I saw Past Tense on the new-books shelf at the library, and decided to give it a whirl.

Like Make Me, Past Tense has Jack Reacher impulsively stopping in a small town, in this case Laconia, New Hampshire. “A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines… But he never went back.”

At this point, anyone who’s read a Jack Reacher novel (this is #24 in the series) knows that small towns in Lee Child novels are always places where bad, bad things are going on, and Reacher will wind up having to save the day, kicking lots of ass in the process. In Past Tense, we get a parallel story about a young Canadian couple on their way to New York with a mysterious suitcase. Their car breaks down near a motel a few miles outside of Laconia. But it’s not a Motel 6, and they’re not going to leave the light on for you.

It’s clear that the Reacher-in-Laconia storyline and one with the Canadians stuck at the creepiest lodging since the Bates Motel are eventually going to intersect. Pleasantly, the Canadians, especially the female, are resourceful, and not sitting ducks for whatever the sinister innkeepers have in store for them.

Getting a glimpse into Reacher’s past is always interesting, and the book subverts expectations a bit by not having him have a fling with the female cop in Laconia; the Canadian woman, Patty, fills the traditional “strong woman” role in this book. (One of the reasons Child has so many female fans is undoubtedly because women are portrayed as powerful in their own right, even if they don’t possess hands the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.) This is an enjoyable read that delivers everything Reacher fans have come to expect when they pick up a Lee Child novel, with just the right amount of suspense and action.