Tag Archives: political thriller

Best-selling novelist Andrew Gross is featured speaker at Greater Naples Jewish Book Festival

Review article by Phil Jason, co-chair of Jewish Book Festival and Florida Weekly book columnist

The Fifth Column: A Novel, by Andrew Gross. Minotaur Books. 336 pages. Hardcover $28.99.

This fast-paced historical thriller has all the ingredients of another best seller for its prolific and popular author. In the late 1930s, the concept of a fifth column, a seditious group forming in the United States in league with this country’s enemies or potential enemies, gained quite a bit of attention. Anti-war sentiment was high, and it raised the possibility of anti-government action. 

Many groups, especially after France fell, admired Hitler and fascism. They admired authoritarian leadership. U. S. security agencies recognized the threat, but agents’ hands were tied without solid proof of law-breaking.

Worst of all, the more sophisticated Fifth Column groups were adept at fitting in, keeping a low profile, and passing for loyalists while planning to undermine the country or its principles.

There were plenty of pro-Nazi rallies, anti-Semitic rants, and New York area neighborhoods in which children wore swastikas.

Andrew Gross describes such an atmosphere, and he finds the perfect premises and plot line to bring it to life in a most horrifying fashion.

We meet the central character and main narrator, Charles Mossman, in a New York bar continuing a pattern of drinking way too much while pondering the political stories of the day. His drinking had brought Charlie low, costing him his job as a history professor at Columbia University. A minimally observant Jew, Charlie is dismayed about the popularity of figures like Father Coughlin and Joseph McWilliams who stirred up trouble and spread hate. He is also grieving over the loss of his twin brother Ben, who died fighting the Fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Worse yet, Charlie had been unfaithful to his wife Liz, who has become the main breadwinner.

He hopes to regain her trust and to never lose it again. His worst nightmare is failing their six-year old daughter Emma.

This night, even more disaster for Charlie comes to pass. Drunk beyond sense or stability, he manages to get into a fight and accidentally murder a teenager.

Two years later, when a clean Charlie is released from jail, determined to claw his way back to respectability, just about all of Europe is at war. Charlie has a lot to prove to regain the faith of his wife, who has changed the last name on the door from Mossman to Rubin. When he hears his daughter’s voice calling “Daddy,” he knows more than ever how much he has missed.

It’s clear that Liz is a long way from trusting him. She is not willing to have him return to their home. Charlie understands; he is hoping – over time – to make amends and prove himself worthy.

Liz agrees to allow Charlie to visit with Emma twice a week after school, but he must leave before Liz returns home. Liz has Mrs. Shearer helping her out minding Emma, and Liz is working to support the tenuously balanced family. There are also elderly neighbors, the Bauers, who have befriended Liz and Emma.

The novel shifts into a new gear when Charlie begins to feel that something is not quite right about the behavior of Trudi and Willi Bauer, who long ago established themselves as Swiss citizens of German heritage enjoying their senior years in the United States. They seem somehow too close to Emma, and she to them.

Charlie is also perplexed by their furtive-seeming visitors, whom they call “customers,” whom the Bauers invite on a regular basis. While it is no surprise that Emma has been developing something of a German vocabulary from her interaction with the Bauers, Charlie is shocked to hear his daughter use the word lebensraum, the oft-repeated justification for Germany’s military aggression.

When Charlie asks Emma what the word means, she responds, “the future.” Now he is further worried. His concern deepens when he notices, in the Bauer home, a strip of partially burned paper containing numbers that might be a secret code. Charlie is also troubled that nearby German bars hold meetings of groups like the German American Bund at which speakers offer Nazi propaganda.

Without much to go on, Charlie – on his lawyer’s advice and without Liz’s consent – takes his concerns to the local police station. He receives a patronizing response and little satisfaction. Given his background, this down-and-out ex-con doesn’t have a chance of getting a fair listening from the police officer, who at least pays him some attention.

The narrative builds in various ways. Charlie continues to tell his story, including his discovery of more suspicious items, including a hidden radio transmitter, in the Bauer home. Gross sets Charlie’s personal story against the larger story of the German advances in Europe and the growing anti-war sentiment in the United States. Although Charlie thinks he has an FBI-connected ally who can put his findings to good use, progress is iffy.

He gets no support from Liz, who acts like a divorce is forthcoming. In her view, Charlie’s behavior is ruining their chances for a normal family life. Hating to be seen in this light, Charlie is nonetheless driven to find the truth for his daughter’s sake – and for his country’s sake.

Charlie’s desperation makes him an easy mark for those who can read it and maneuver him to their advantage.

Andrew Gross masterfully portrays the details of how Charlie’s quest plays out, including the setbacks along the way, Charlie’s emotional predicament, and the forces arrayed against him. I can’t tell you more without giving too much away!

Book lovers can hear Mr. Gross discuss this blazing thriller – which imagines a carefully planned, deadly threat against the U. S. – on Tuesday, November 11 beginning at 1:00 at the Naples Conference Center. The book will be available for sale and signing. Also speaking at that event will be Steve Israel, author of Big Guns. Find details about the complete Festival series of events, along with an order form, author bios, sponsor news, and contact information at http://www.jewishbookfestival.org. Need an answer fast? Send an email to fedstar18@gmail.com or call the Federation office at 239.263.4205.

This review article first appeared in the October 2019  edition of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples).

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Almost down for the count, Kirk McGarvey rebounds to outdo the bad guys

Flash Points, by David Hagberg. Forge. 320 pages. Hardcover $25.99.

This electrifying thriller continues the battle between his continuing hero, Kirk McGarvey, and the shrewd, highly skilled freelance assassin introduced in Tower Down (reviewed in these pages). Let’s call that man, who has several identities, Kamal. He has roots in Saudi Arabia, but easily blends into Western environments. For sale to the highest bidder, he has his own agenda.  

At the top of Kamal’s list is the murder of “Mac,” his nemesis. Not only must he cleanse the world of this CIA operative and former director, Kamal needs to see Mac suffer, and maybe Mac’s girlfriend as well. Mac had foiled Kamal’s plan to bring down a second Manhattan skyscraper in “Tower Down.”

However, what’s making Kamal a very wealthy man is his agreement to put Mac out of the way for other reasons. Groups with opposing attitudes toward the new U. S. president want Mac out of the way because he is the person most likely to detect and foil their plans.

The group wishing to discredit the new president is bankrolling a series of terrorist catastrophes meant to undermine the stature of the inexperienced, ill equipped president. He will, so goes the scheme, inevitably blunder in ways that will make his replacement inevitable. This group’s leaders have put Kamal on their payroll.

The cadre that supports the new president wishes to use similar schemes to opposite ends. They will be manipulating events to make him look good; not only will the outcome assure solidifying his base, but also expanding it.


The novel opens with an explosion meant to destroy Mac’s car and him with it. Planned by Kamal, misplacement of the explosive material by a hireling lessens the impact. Nonetheless, Mac loses a leg. The CIA leadership thinks it best for him to recuperate in secret and for the word to get out that he has been killed.

While Mac gets used to his peg leg and recovers from other wounds, he participates in the planning that will draw out the crafty Kamal.

Mr. Hagberg alternates the center of consciousness so that readers switch back and forth between following Kamal’s thoughts, emotions, and actions and following Mac’s. The tradecraft and courage of each is well displayed, as is their sharp contrast in values. Suspense builds higher and higher as the inevitable confrontation draws closer and closer. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 23, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 24 Naples, Bonita Springs, Charlotte County, and Palm Beach editions, click here:  Florida Weekly – Flash Points

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US Congresswoman kidnapped by Shining Path guerillas held for ransom high in the Peruvian Andes

Shining Path, by William Schnorbach. Aristos Press. 295-page hardcover $29.95. 346-page trade paperback $17.00.

Billed as “A Lone Wolf Thriller – Book One,” book is a piece of novelistic history that sets several fascinating characters against the turmoil in Peru born of corrupt government and a brutal revolutionary force named “Shining Path” by its founder, Manuel Ruben Abimael Guzman Reynosa (usually reduced to Abimael Guzman). He considered himself to be the fourth sword of Marxism, inspired by the Maoist third sword (following Marx and Lenin). Mr. Schnorbach focuses his narrative on four months toward the end of a twelve-year nightmare of violence for the Peruvian people. 

The principal characters are U. S. Congresswoman Marta Stone, who plans to grab a Senate seat in a forthcoming election; a Native American undercover CIA operative and “sky walker” who uses the moniker Lone Wolf, super-skilled and dangerous; and Antonio Navarro, co-founder of Shining Path who knows the movement has lost its moral compass. The three form an alliance of necessity in a world in which loyalty is bought and sold.

After Marta is abducted in Lima and held as a prisoner of war, Lone Wolf (whose legal name is Josh Barnes) is assigned to rescue her. Antonio (hereafter “Tony”), also imprisoned, is protecting her.

The novel proceeds by rolling out an unhappy mix of action and exposition. The action scenes are stunning whirlwinds of sensory experience. Over and over, Lone Wolf’s special martial skills, offensive and defensive, are on display along with other brands of physical prowess and mental acumen. He is a great planner as well as a great improvisor. He knows how to beat the odds when his team is overmatched.


He, along with Marta and Tony, must make their way through difficult terrain with insufficient nourishment and a determined, well-trained enemy. They deal with injuries and exhaustion.

Mr. Schnorbach handles this action scenes with great skill, offering vivid descriptions of the rugged environment and building pulse-racing tension from episode to episode. . . .

To read the review in its entirely, as it appears in the May 17, 2017 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 18 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte, and Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Shining Path

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Enemies within attempt to provoke U. S. war abroad

Nowhere on Earth, by Vincent J. Sachar. Divont Pubishers. 334 pages. Trade paperback $12.25.

What if high-ranking elected government officials as well as major security agency personnel were engaged in a plot to undermine official U. S. policy? What if they had a plan to force the U. S. into a war in the Middle East? What would be the chances of such a plot being successful? What would it take to detect and thwart it? Who would it take to lead the charge? noecoverjavier

The answer to the last question is that it would take a man with many names, one of which is Kent Taylor. Taylor, a former Navy SEAL LCDR, is a man with unusual skills and a dark background. The damage he has seen and done has made him a lot of enemies. His simple cover story is that he died many years before this threat was set in motion. He is leading a secluded life with his wife on the island of St. John, one of the U. S. Virgin Islands. For his own survival and that of other family members, he has become imprisoned in paradise.

Now that all comes to an end. He finds himself teaming up with three FBI retirees to fight the rogue group that sees its interests requiring that the U. S. be manipulated into a foreign war. The skills of Taylor, former FBI Special Agent Bill Gladding, and former agents Jonas and Sally Blair combine to lead the battle. Others play roles in assisting them, just as many other characters play rolls as part of the rogue effort. Some readers may find just too many characters to sort out.

Mr. Sachar builds his plot out of seemingly disconnected pieces, jumping from location to location, crisis to crisis, character to character, outlining the major plot by defining the dots that have to be followed and linked. You know, follow the dots.

A major dot is a large upstate New York company named Bergam Industries. Its legitimate businesses have cloaked illegal doings like money laundering, and something is going on that involves the secret presence of African visitors. Smuggling perhaps?



One employee suffers a mysterious accidental death. Another, suspicious and fearful, brings computer jump drive to his lawyer’s office. This lawyer just happens to be the aforementioned Jonas Blair. The man mysteriously disappears. After Blair is threatened by thugs who arrive to retrieve the stolen property, he brings Taylor and the others into the effort to stop the network of rogue officials and operatives.

A scene in the Congo, yet another dot on the plot map, reveals an African man in hiding, He is in the service of U. S. interests. But which ones? The legitimate ones or the pretenders?

To read the entire review, as it appears in the December 28, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the December 29 Naples, Bonita Springs, and Punta Gorda / Port Charlotte editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Nowhere on Earth

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African darkness looms over high-stakes thriller

Choice of Enemies, by M. A. Richards. Sunbury Press. 224 pages. Hardcover $24.95. Trade paperback $16.95.

Billed the first Nathan Monsarrat Thriller, “Choice of Enemies” introduces Nathan working as an academic dean at a Greylock College in Western Massachusetts. Actually, the novel opens a couple of years earlier, with the narrator detailing the last chapter in Nathan’s career as a CIA deep cover operative. We see a confused tableau in which Nathan is rescued after many months of incarceration and torture in Africa at the hands of a Nigerian rebel group named FATA. His rescuer, who is also his CIA superior, is a man of many identities. One of those identities is as Felix Sanhedrin, a cruel egocentric with expensive tastes, a warped sense of fashion, and no loyalties. COE-Super-Hi-Res

Nathan had been caught up in the battle to control African oil, the goal of a consortium of American oil companies in league with the CIA. African national leaders, who may just as well be called African criminal gang bosses, have other ideas – as do the rebels seeking to overthrow them. Nathan is still not done making the transition to his new bucolic life in Berkshire territory when Sanhedrin shows up with an assignment that has the additional benefit of allowing Nathan to settle scores and perhaps rescue a woman very dear to him.

The assignment has to do with the transfer of a rare terracotta statue, but that mission soon leads to others, including an assassination that leaves Nathan rather gleeful.

The lure of Mr. Richards’ book is its virtuoso game of high style and authentic details of espionage tradecraft.  Clothes and gadgets make the man, whether we are observing Nathan Monsarrat or Felix Sanhedrin. It’s hard to know what kind of audience they are dressing for, especially the zany Sanhedrin, who has at some point assumed a surname that is the Hebrew word for the high court of ancient Israel. (His surname for another persona, Seleucid, also alludes to the ancient Middle East.)



The author has a penchant for Jewish references, including choosing a setting in Namibia that has the same name as a town in Israel – Rosh Pinah. Mr. Richards even finds room for a minor character called the “yeshiva bocher” (an Orthodox Jewish schoolboy), now switching from Hebrew to Yiddish for his Jewish-toned running in-joke.

Threat and suspicion are everywhere in Nathan’s world, and he himself is the cause of it in worlds that he enters. Thus, suspense is everywhere, too. Mr. Richards is already a master at manipulating his readers and raising the suspense thermometer to higher and higher levels. Nathan Monsarrat’s stony deliberateness is part of the process. Will all of his careful planning produce its intended end result? Or will things go wrong? . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the May 11, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 12 Naples, Bonita Springs, Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte, Palm Beach Gardens/Jupiter, and Palm Beach/West Palm Beach editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Richards

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Plane crash investigation in Colombian rainforest finds shocking surprises

Passenger 19, by Ward Larsen. Oceanview Publishing. 336 pages. Hardcover $26.95.

Mr. Larsen’s latest is now labeled as “A Jammer Davis Thriller,” linking it with two of the author’s previous novels. I, for one, am happy to approve the plan. I’m just thrilled to imagine more such techno-thrillers. In this one, not only is Jammer assigned to investigate a plane crash, he is also out to save his daughter Jen. She was on that flight but not accounted for after the crash, nor is another college girl, Kristin Stewart, with whom she had boarded the plane.  Passenger19high-res

The investigation, performed officially by Colombian authorities with Jammer constantly overstepping his role in the matter, reveals that the crash was not survivable. It also reveals that the pilot and co-pilot were shot before the crash, along with one other person who turns out to be a Secret Service agent.

Figuring out the who, the how, and the why of this off-the-charts event takes Jammer and others on a dangerous journey. The examination of physical evidence and the exploration of countless “what ifs” leads to an unusual theory: the plane must have landed and taken off again – and not because of an emergency, but rather according to plan.

“Passenger 19” is not only a study in detection, it’s also a study in Colombia, its capital Bogotá, and the dense rain forests. In a country in which mob crime is among the largest businesses, those who wear official uniforms and hold government positions may or may not be trustworthy. Those who wear the uniforms or emblems of various paramilitary forces are likely to be private entrepreneurs who can be trusted to run illegal enterprises. The biggest, of course, are the drug cartels. Gaining ground are those in the kidnap-for-ransom business.

Ward Larsen

Ward Larsen

When it’s discovered that one of the dead men in a pilot’s uniform is not the pilot who had handled the original take-off (the uniform is too big), Jammer concludes that the first set-down of the plane was part of a hijacking. The later wreck would have been designed to get rid of witnesses.

Eventually, Jammer’s grudging Colombian counterpart, a military officer who oversees air transportation issues, is found murdered. Looks like he was getting too close to something.

The plot – with all of its carefully managed twists and turns of information, deduction, and action – keeps the pages flying. Even more impressive is Mr. Larsen’s handling of the technical material: the intricacies of aircraft design, handling characteristics, and controls. As Jammer and others discuss these matters, examine the tortured parts of the downed plane, and explore the crash landing’s impact on the terrain, readers are brought close to the analytical, scientific mind making its way through a myriad of facts to reach conclusions and determine actions. . . .

To read the full review, as published in the January 6, 2016 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the January 7 Naples and Bonita Springs editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Passenger 19

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Leaving Berlin, by Joseph Kanon

  • Atria Books. 384 pp. $27.00.

This taut page-turner captures the contradictions and complexities of the post-WWII German capital.

In his latest fast-paced thriller, Leaving Berlin, Joseph Kanon explores an exciting, fear-filled time. The constant drone of airlifts bringing scarce supplies to the isolated city devastated by World War II is the background music for beleaguered lives. The experiment of a Soviet Germany in which one authoritarian regime supplants another has everyone looking over his or her shoulder. Old loyalties — and old identities — give way to new or faked ones.Kanon’s central figure is Jewish writer Alex Meier, who, as a young man with a blooming reputation, had left Germany for the United States ahead of the war. Now, in 1949, he returns under complex circumstances.Meier has made a bargain with the devil. The House Un-American Activities Committee (“McCarthy”) threatened to deport him, an uncooperative German socialist, making his return impossible and his separation from his young son permanent. However, Alex reached a deal with the newly established CIA to provide information in exchange for a return to the U.S. A native Berliner with many connections, he is at once at home and in exile. Everything is changing as communist rule reshapes the culture.

Something of a celebrity, Alex mixes with such returned notables as Bertolt Brecht while finding his assignment as a CIA agent upsetting to his moral compass. . . .

To read the entire, juicy review as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books (posted April 3, 2015), click here:  http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/bookreview/leaving-berlin

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Colorful political and romantic thriller captures wartime Cairo

City of the Sun, by Juliana Maio. Greenleaf Book Group Press. 380 pages. Hardcover $24.95, trade paperback $15.95.

When Mickey Connolly, a young American journalist comes to the Middle East to report on the desert war, he is astonished to discover Libyans praising Hitler’s Third Reich and seeing their future as Nazi Germany’s allies. In Cairo, his “home” base, he encounters much of the same attitude, though it’s essentially more anti-English than pro-German. Egyptians had lived under British martial law since 1939, compromising the independence gained in 1936. With Rommel furiously approaching the Egyptian border, Connolly wants to wake up American readers to the facts and significance of this desert war theater. For much of the 1941-2 the time of the novel, the Germans seem unstoppable.  MaioCover

So why are Jewish refugees from Germany and elsewhere coming to Egypt in their flight from persecution? There is a sizeable, well-established Jewish community there with mature institutions. There are Jewish individuals in positions of influence and power. However, the stability of Jewish life in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East is threatened by the dramatic rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its growing partnership with Nazi Germany.

Meet Heinrich Kesner. He works for the Abwehr, the German military intelligence operation reporting on doings in Cairo, allied military strength, and whatever will prepare for Rommel’s victory in Egypt. He has cultivated a wide range of informants and is now being noticed by the SS as a useful functionary.

He has the particular assignment of tracking a Jewish refugee who is has arrived via Istanbul. That refugee is Erik Blumenthal, who with his father Viktor and his sister Maya is stay with the Levin family, cousins who will shelter them until their final papers allow for transit to Palestine. They have just barely escaped from Germany.




The host family is headed by Joe and Allegra. Their oldest child, Lili, who is in her late teens, befriends Maya, who is somewhat older, and after a while the two are sister-like confidants. Both young women are knockouts. We find out later that Allegra’s brother is a prominent lawyer who is assisting Zionist efforts.

Mickey Connolly has been gaining access to personnel at the British and U. S. embassies, visiting Jewish leaders and institutions, and reshaping his reportorial focus, narrowing it down to the situation of the Jewish community in Egypt and the Arab Middle East. Mickey proves a good sleuth, and he is recruited by the U. S. embassy to secretly hunt down the very same Erik Blumenthal who is Kesner’s target.

Erik is important because of his stature as a young nuclear scientist who has the kind of expertise that can benefit either the Allied or Axis powers.

When Mickey encounters and falls for the reserved, intelligent, and extremely attractive Maya, he has no idea that she is the sister of the man he seeks. Maya – properly fearful, guarded, and yet enchanted to be in “Paris on the Nile” – hides her true identity and whereabouts. Intermediaries help them communicate, and soon enough their torrid love affair begins to overwhelm the political thriller plot, though the two stories are of course interwoven. Each lover has secrets, creating a clash between trust and passion.

Juliana Maio winds her story-telling through alternating points of view, weaving a pattern in which readers stand behind Connolly, Kesner, Maya, and others. The device of Interrupting one character’s thread with another leaves readers hanging, especially as events draw the characters closer and closer together. A sizeable cast of well-etched minor characters populates a fascinating landscape at a fascinating time in history.

Egyptian born Maio’s lavishly painted setting is one of her novel’s many charms. She takes us to a Cairo still intoxicated by the long cultural aftermath of Napoleon’s conquest and occupation at the turn of the nineteenth century. Pockets of Cairo, including the suburb of Heliopolis (City of the Sun), became effectively Europeanized, and French language, arts, and manners became part of the city’s look and social tone up to and well beyond the onset of World War II.

Knowing that the Nazis did not conquer Egypt, we are left to anticipate the fates of Erik, Mickey, and Maya. My lips are sealed.

This review appears in the April 2014 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee).


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