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, 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.

Review of “The Kremlin Conspiracy” by Joel Rosenberg

“The Kremlin Conspiracy” by Joel Rosenberg hit a home run with me. It was published in 2018, and could be characterized as a political-military thriller. Although the characters have fictional names, it is based on current events and thinly-disguised current political leaders. The plot involves a U.S. ex-Marine, ex-Secret Service agent, and a young Russian lawyer of about the same age as their careers develop. Rosenberg’s creative structure involves alternating between the two careers and showing pivotal events in their respective lives as the two characters are drawn closer together as a result of large political forces as well as the events in their respective lives. Rosenberg did a great job with this one. His knowledge of the Russian political scene and internal operations seems very deep. I believe his expertise is the result of extensive research, and he cites a very impressive list of sources he says were “very generous with their time”. If he made it up, I applaud his imagination. What he wrote was very believable, and I was drawn into his plot by this plausibility, his finely tuned characters, and by his writing style. After the first part of the book, I was hooked and had a very difficult time putting the book down. It was simultaneously thrilling and finely crafted.

Rosenberg had a few minor points I did not quite understand. There were some things that happened to his American character early in the book that did not seem to advance the story. I found them as a bit of a distraction and were not necessary to the development of the plot. They were probably intended as character development, but I found them a little superfluous. Also, some of the minor characters that were involved in a military action at the beginning of the book all seemed to turn up later in the American main character’s life. They all seemed to land in high places that the American main character interacted with throughout the book. I found this a little too coincidental, and frankly not necessary. I thought the plot could have moved forward without them. The American character seemed deeply religious at times in the book, but I didn’t feel the religiousness moved the plot forward or added much to the American character or the decisions he made. None of these criticisms are major, and they did absolutely nothing to get in the way of my enjoyment of this excellent book.

This was the first Joel Rosenberg book I have read. I was not aware of Mr. Rosenberg until I came across it in the new book section of my local library. I was glad I stumbled on it. I will seek out more of Mr. Rosenberg’s work and would recommend it to someone looking for a political-military thriller based on current events.

I also posted this review in Goodreads.