Review of “Gunmetal Gray” by Mark Greaney

“Gunmetal Gray” was a very enjoyable read for me. It was the second book I have read in Mark Greaney’s “Gray Man” series. I actually liked “Agent in Place”, Greaney’s most recent Gray Man novel, a little bit more. “Gunmetal Gray” one was right up there, however.

The strength of this book is Greaney’s character, “The Gray Man”, a professional assassin that sometimes works for the C.I.A. and sometimes does free-lance work. What makes this character particularly interesting is his moral code.  Like Arnold Schwarzenegger in “True Lies” he only seems to kill bad people. He tries to do the right thing in a very murky world.  “The Gray Man” makes a very entertaining main character.

In “Gunmetal Gray”, The Gray Man is searching for a high-level computer hacker who was a member of China’s People’s Liberation Army and is on the run after defecting. Apparently this computer hacker is very talented, since it seems that every major intelligence agency in the world is after him as well. Throughout “Gunmetal Gray”, the Gray Man tangles with the People’s Liberation Army, Russian commandos, Chinese Triads, Thai gangsters, the Italian Mafia and perhaps some other miscellaneous villains I have forgotten. Sometimes the encounter includes several groups of bad guys simultaneously. The plot is fairly intricate without being overly complex. There are enough twists and turns throughout to keep a thriller connoisseur intellectually engaged.

Greaney has some interesting other characters in “Gunmetal Gray” as well. Of particular note is a female Russian commando that seems to be a Russian version of the Gray Man. The computer hacker himself is a fairly well-developed character as are an old English friend, and his own handler within the C.I.A.

The book is set  in Hong Kong and Thailand. I am fairly familiar with Hong Kong, and Greaney seems very much at home there. Some of the sites visited there include the Peak, Tsim Sha Tsui, the Peninsula Hotel, and the Chunking Mansions. I would like to have seen more depth in Hong Kong, but that is strictly a personal preference. A larger portion of the book is set in Thailand, and Greaney seems to capture that as well.  Since I have spent very little time in Thailand, I can’t vouch for his realism, but his descriptions seem realistic.

My favorite part of the book is its discussion of tactical operations. Greaney uses a technique of alternating points of view in short chapters. One chapter might be from the Gray Man’s point of view, and the next chapter might be from a Russian commando’s point of view. Greaney does a really good job with this technique, and anyone looking to emulate this technique should refer to his books. He also seems to know his way around weapons and tactics. The Gray man and his many enemies go through a wide array of weapons, and his usage of them seem very realistic to this non-technical reader.  His tactics are well-described, and perhaps overdone, but reading how the Gray Man can defeat 50 or more adversaries all by himself is very entertaining.

All in all, this was a very good read. It was heavy on action, has a great protagonist, an intricate plot, and interesting settings.

Gunmetal Gray was published in 2017. I obtained it from my local library after reading Greaney’s most recent novel “Agent in Place”. It was a good find. I also published a version of this review in Goodreads.

Advertisements

Anthony Bourdain

 

Anthony Bourdain died June 8, 2018, an apparent suicide. The news of his death hit me surprisingly hard, as it did to a lot of people I knew from a wide variety of ages and walks of life. His most recent gig was as the host of “Parts Unknown” that was broadcast on CNN, but I have been a fan of his for many years. In addition to his CNN work Bourdain was a writer, hosted several other travel series, and made frequent guest appearances on various food-related shows.

Bourdain was a guilty pleasure of mine. He was a bad boy with a sense of mischief and a huge talent. The man could write. What I admired the most about him, however, was his integrity. In a field ripe with the possibility of ethical lapses, you always felt Bourdain was telling the truth as he saw it and he was always innovative. When you tuned into “Parts Unknown” or any other of his series, like Forest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never knew what you were going to get. Some of his shows were excellent, such as his shows from Beirut and his shows from the Congo. Most of his shows were very good.  I felt he sometimes didn’t deliver on some shows, particularly those involving some sort of celebrity chef. He even managed to make a bad show entertaining through a lot of self-deprecating humor. That is what made his show so much fun to watch. It was never a formula and you were always going to get something you hadn’t seen or even thought about out of his trip. He was equally at home with common folks in a particular country or someone with a great deal of fame.

He always alluded to his past drug use and his use of alcohol. You admired him for making a success out of a very bad start in life. As they say now he made some “bad choices”, and you really hoped he was past those bad choices. Some of his shows were a little disturbing, particularly in retrospect. An alcohol-fueled romp through San Francisco comes to mind here.  I will enjoy those shows a whole lot less now. They remind me of the dark side of the restaurant culture of excess, and of the price one inevitably pays for spending a large part of their life on the road. It all takes a very heavy toll.

I was very sad to see him come to this end. After watching him for so many years on television, I felt like he was a friend, and I mourn his passing. I wish I could have told him how much I admired his work and how much I admired his struggle even more. I wish I could have said something to him that would have helped him somehow. I suspect many of us share that wish.

 

Going to Thrillerfest

I am going to Thrillerfest this year. I wanted to learn from the best, and Thrillerfest provides me an opportunity to do just that. It is a fairly expensive undertaking, but one that provides a not-to-be missed opportunity to rub shoulders with some of the big names in the thriller community and learn a lot at the same time. I have been to Thrillerfest before, but I haven’t written about it. I thought it was time to blog about it based on those past visits.

Thrillerfest takes place in New York City, at the Grand Hyatt New York, from July 10-14, 2018. The New York venue makes it a relatively expensive undertaking, but that’s where a lot of the top-notch publishing houses and literary agents have their home, so a New York location makes their attendance more likely and enriches the conference. There is a lot of a la carte pricing which makes it possible to pick and choose among opportunities and reduce your costs somewhat. The Thrillerfest website is http://thrillerfest.com/. There are three major components, Craftfest, Pitchfest, and Thrillerfest itself. There is also a pre-conference tour to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (last year was the F.B.I). There is a small bookstore where authors are available for a book-signing.

Craftfest provides opportunities where the authors teach short courses related to the craft of writing as they each see it. The authors are very generous with their time and the information about their craft that they present to a very willing audience. I have attended a lot of theses talks, and they are generally excellent, particularly for someone just learning to write a novel. Trust me, there is a lot to learn. Topics such as “Ten Mistakes New Authors Make” (I made at least six before I lost count) have been offered at prior Craftfests as well as more specific topics such as character, plot, dialog, pacing, writing career advice,  etc. Every lecture I attended at Craftfest has been informative, well-prepared and well-presented. I will be attending Craftfest again this year.

Pitchfest is sandwiched in between Craftfest and Thrillerfest and in many ways is probably the heart of what goes on at Thrillerfest. It is an opportunity for aspiring writers to pitch their work to agents who are looking for writers to represent. Direct pitches to publishing houses are also possible at this event. It is like speed-dating where the author has about three minutes to sell themselves to a prospective buyer. The whole affair is crowded and zoo-like, but is extremely well run by a small army of volunteers who direct traffic and offer encouragement to nervous authors. If an agent likes your pitch, they will ask for more samples of your writing before exploring a more serious relationship. It is an intimidating process. This is a tough business, but Pitchfest provides a great opportunity to showcase your work to a number of potential agents.

Thrillerfest itself is largely topic-oriented panel sessions relevant to the thriller community. I have not attended this in the past, but it appears well-attended and has an impressive array of authors and industry leaders as members of various panels. I will be attending this part of Thrillerfest this year.

Thrillerfest is staffed by a large army of volunteers who provide the oil that makes this large conference run smoothly. I will be volunteering this year as a way to give back a little bit to this event that I have enjoyed so much in the past. In addition, it will be a great way to meet people. Authoring is a very lonely profession, and networking is necessary just as it is an any other endeavor. As at most conferences I have ever attended, a lot of learning takes place outside the formal events of the conference, and volunteering provides a great opportunity to meet a large number of extremely interesting folks. I’ll let you know how it all goes.

 

Review of “A Loyal Spy” by Simon Conway

This was the first book by Simon Conway that I read. It was the winner of the Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award in 2010 when it was published in Britain. The edition I read was published in the USA in 2018.

The book is about a British spy who finds out that his very old friend and agent might not just be working for British intelligence and might be involved in many other nefarious activities. I won’t say anything about what happens to these characters for fear of disclosing something that would spoil a reader’s pleasure. This book is very much in the tradition of John LeCarré. It doesn’t quite match up with LeCarré, but few ever do.

The major strength of the book lie in the development of some interesting and believable characters. The characters do have many flaws, which I always appreciate, but are very capable in what they do. They are well-developed and complex. The setting is also a  strength of this book. The author obviously knows his way around the Middle East, and the description of the characters and the places seem extremely realistic to me.

The weaknesses of the book involve the complexity of the plot and the structure the author uses to reveal backstory. I found the plot very complex, but the way the author jumped forward and backward in time and changed the point of view added a degree of complexity that I found to be unnecessary. You really have to pay attention to what is going on in this book, and I found that difficult at times. There was also a certain amount of gratuitous sex and violence in the book that I found unnecessary, and even interfering with the plot development and the character portrayals.

Overall, it is a cleverly crafted novel, squarely in the British spy story tradition. The reader is cautioned that it is a little difficult to follow, particularly in the first half of the book.  I guess that is what makes British spy novels so different from their American counterparts. “A Loyal Spy” is worth reading for a reader who knows what they are getting into, and can deal with time jumps and changes in point of view.

I obtained this book through the New Books display in my local library. I also published this review in Goodreads.

The Real Book Spy

In my foray into the world of thriller book reviews, I came across a website that I would recommend to anyone interested in reading (or writing) thrillers. The website is called The Real Book Spy, therealbookspy.com. The Real Book Spy does thriller reviews really well. This guy knows how to write book reviews. He focuses on thrillers in a broad sense, not simply those that have to do with spies or espionage. The site is very well done and is a lot of fun to surf through.

His reviews are concise, and well written. He concentrates on recently released thrillers starting in 2015, from major publishers.  Each review contains summary of the content of the novel, similar to what you would find on the dust cover if you were browsing in a bookstore. There do not seem to be any spoilers, which I have discovered is a hard trick to master. He does have some evaluative content, however, and is not afraid to point out shortcomings. At the end  of each review, he includes a  small section titled “Book Details”, including a “Book Spy Rating” on a 10-point scale. The books he reviews are all pretty good to begin with, having already received a lot of pre-publication scrutiny, but the Real Book Spy does discriminate. For example, the recent thriller The President is Missing,  by Bill Clinton and James Patterson receives a Book Spy Rating of 7.0/10. Daniel Silva’s recent release, The Other Woman, receives a Book Spy Rating of 9.95/10. I haven’t read either of these books yet, so I can’t comment on the Real Book Spy’s judgement, but I do admire his willingness to make numerical assessments. It is easy to make enemies in this field, so publishing a less-than-near-perfect rating on a thriller by such famous authors takes a certain amount of courage.

I have taken to reading the Real Book Spy’s Reviews after I have read a book and made my own judgements. He really knows his way around the thriller world and writes really good, concise reviews. I would recommend anyone interested in the world of thrillers to take a spin through his website. In addition to reviews, he has a lot of information on author tours, interviews from authors, industry news, etc. He provides reading lists and makes individual reading recommendations on request. He also offers editorial services as a “book doctor” and is probably a very good one. He has links on Amazon to purchase the books he reviews.

His website contains over 100 reviews so far in 2018. He is very active on Twitter. I have no idea how he reads all the books he reviews. and delivers all the information he delivers to the thriller community of readers and writers, but he does a great job. I imagine he is a very busy man.

Thoughts on Reviewing Books

I have been busy reviewing books instead of writing myself. I told myself I needed to read a lot of thrillers to learn more about them, so I set off on a journey to read some current thrillers as well as some “classics”. I focused on those with an espionage/political slant, but I read a number of other forms of thriller as well. I told myself the discipline of writing a review would make me a better reader and eventually a better writer. Time will tell. I decided to review books that I picked up from used book sales that fit what I wanted. I am cheap. I also used my public library, particularly the “new book section” and the digital catalog once I decided to look at certain authors. I accepted a few “free” books from Book Bub and NetGalley. Even this limited, financially prudent, methodology turned up a large number of books I wanted to read. I started writing reviews on a few of them.  My own writing suffered, but I read some great books, and learned a little about the reviewing process and the publishing industry in general.

Reviewing is tougher than it looks. You need to write a brief summary of the book without giving away too many details and spoiling the experience for the readers. You don’t want to be too negative either. Making enemies does no good. On the other hand, you need to be a little discriminating, or else the reviews are nothing more than unpaid promotions for an author. Not every book is wonderful, but most are pretty good. They got past the author’s own scrutiny, and if they were published by a major publishing house, they survived a lot of other scrutiny as well. You need to be even more sensitive about independent publishers. The last thing I want to do is crush some other author trying to break into a very difficult game. Reviewing books has its own set of customs that I need to learn about on the fly.

Retirement Surprises

I haven’t written too much about retirement, so I felt I was due for a bit of reflection on what has transpired so far. Actually nothing monumental. I did complete a first draft of a book some time ago and have had a great deal of difficulty getting into the revisions. There are many reasons for this, some good and some bad. I have been busy with a lot of things that I never thought I would be busy with. Now the surprises:

Never boring–I can’t say that I have ever been bored with retirement. I have never relocated from where I worked, so I am surrounded by a network of old friends, former co-workers, church,  and family. They have provided a lot of support and much diversion, both good and bad, but clearly more of the good kind. The lack of boredom was a big surprise to me. Frankly I expected more, but I am happy to say that expectation did not materialize.

New worlds–Writing, especially trying to write a fictional thriller, has been a very broadening experience. The publishing, writing, and thriller worlds have been all new to me. There are many institutions and individuals out there in the world of publishing that have been very generous with their time and advice. There are also a number of sharks and predators out there, but I believe I have successfully avoided them. Taking on an entirely new endeavor, such as writing a thriller, has been humbling, intimidating, and exhilarating all at the same time. In addition to attempting to move a novel forward, I have started a blog and reviewed books and movies. Each of these subcultures has its own cast of characters that I have enjoyed meeting, and its own set of customs a newcomer needs to understand and respect.

Technology–Each of the new worlds I have been exploring has technologies that are somewhat new to me. Bumping into these technologies, and exploring them has been an adventure. I have had some successes and some failures with them.  I was surprised how much technology I avoided in my prior work. I have been a very primitive social media user, but I am starting to find these things useful and even, at times, a lot of fun.  I still have no Facebook account, but have started exploring Twitter and Pinterest. I am still just at the edge of these things, but the biggest surprise to me has been how much I enjoy monkeying around with them, even though I am at the very early stages.

Second Guessing–I haven’t done a lot of second-guessing about my decision to retire from university teaching, but I have to admit to a small amount. My second guessing does not involve the issues I read about in my brief foray into the retirement planning world. I have no regrets about financial issues, or boredom, or lack of professional identity. My second guessing involves the gnawing desire to “prove that I can still do it”, that I could still plan out a university-level course and deliver it. I think it is a strange, macho sort of itch that I may need to scratch. I need to prove to myself that I can still make a living if I need to. The fact that this feeling will not go away has been a surprise to me. I should have anticipated it, but I didn’t.

Well, those are my retirement surprises after over three years out from the job.  Overall, I have been a very fortunate man and have generally experienced positive surprises.