Tag Archives: spies

Star of the North by D.B. John

Harvill Secker | 2018 (Hb: 10 May; ebook: 3 May) | 440p | Review copy | Buy the book

Star of the North by DB JohnIn June 1988, teenager Soo-min, a Korean American, disappeared along with her boyfriend from a beach in South Korea. The young couple were presumed drowned but Soo-min’s twin sister Jenna has never stopped believing that she is still alive and she has continued to search for her. The years have gone by, 22 of them, and now it looks as if the truth might be known and it’s a terrible truth. A captured North Korean submarine captain has admitted that years before he snatched people from beaches and carried them to North Korea. Soo-min and her boyfriend were just two of many. Jenna will do anything to find out Soo-min’s fate, even if that means changing her life completely, becoming a spy and undertaking a daring mission into North Korea.

North Korea is unlike anywhere else on Earth. The Dear Leader, Kim Jong-Il, is worshipped as a living god while his adoring subjects endure deprivations beyond imagining, with little food or light, literally working as slaves to fund their Dear Leader’s lavish lifestyle and secret projects. Mrs Moon is trying to keep herself and her husband alive by working in her spare time at a market selling food. It’s a terribly risky business and the borderline between survival and starvation is thin. By contrast Colonel Cho appears to have it all. He believes in Kim Jong-Il, he has a family he loves and can provide for and his future looks bright. Until the day comes that proves just how unsafe all lives are in this state.

I thought I knew a little about North Korea but this fantastic thriller shows me just how little that was. D.B. North has the credentials – he’s visited North Korea, he’s seen its control and influence over its citizens for himself and he brings all of this to bear in Star of the North. The portrait of North Korea is utterly compelling – but it also repels. This is an appalling state of affairs and we see it in action here as it affects all levels of North Korean society, or rather the privileged and the starving.

The story is engrossing and made even more so by the fact that we follow a number of lives through the novel, in the US and in North Korea. Jenna, Mrs Moon and Cho each have their motives, the force that drives them on, and they are all totally committed to their path. It is also extremely exciting and thrilling, full of surprises and shocks as well as moments of such tension. And it couldn’t be more topical.

I longed for Jenna to find the answers she was searching for and I agonised for Mrs Moon and Cho. Mrs Moon, for me, is the heart of this wonderful novel. Her story is astonishing.

I can’t praise this intense and thoroughly absorbing political/spy thriller enough. It’s an eye opener about North Korea and is genuinely shocking. It’s also a page turner and no wonder because it tells a brilliant story and its people are wholly believable – I cared deeply. Star of the North is a topical and relevant thriller, enormously exciting, extremely intelligent, beautifully written and not to be missed.

I’m delighted to post my review as part of the blog tour. For other stops, please take a look at the poster below.

Star of the North blog tour poster


London Rules by Mick Herron

John Murray | 2018 (1 February) | 345p | Bought copy | Buy the book

London Rules by Mick HerronLondon Rules is the fifth book in Mick Herron’s Slough House series of spy novels. This is, though, only the first I’ve read, which definitely puts me at a disadvantage when trying to review it and so, as it is a bought book and not a review copy, I’m just going to attempt a shortish review about why I’ve now gone and bought up the entire backlist.

Slough House in London is a place where spies go when they’re in disgrace and nothing more is expected from them, except for the forlorn hope that they won’t cause any more trouble for Queen and Country. These men and women are the Slow Horses of the secret service and they’re led by the extraordinary Jackson Lamb, a man who is held together by bad habits. The rest are a mix of alcoholics, drug addicts, deranged techies, with even the odd psychopath thrown in. Unfortunately one of them has become involved in the biggest crisis facing M15 and M16 today. A gang of terrorists is working to a plan to throw the country into chaos, beginning with a mass shooting in a small village in Derbyshire. Matters aren’t helped by the uneasy and volatile relationship between the teetering Prime Minister, the rogue MP who launched Brexit and a popular Muslim mayor candidate. The whole situation is about to explode and, unfortunately, Slough House is on the case.

The story is brilliant! I loved the way multiple threads are followed at the same time, some coming together, others not, but the huge appeal of this book, and I presume the others, is its characters. Not just the Slow Horses themselves but everyone who passes through the pages. Some might only pop by but they’re still painted with full colour and personality. The Slow Horses themselves, though, are priceless. The IT expert Roddy’s innate belief and confidence in himself as a man beloved by women is laugh outloud funny. He’s the sort of man who doesn’t even realise when he’s being tortured – he just thinks he’s helping people with their enquiries and is pleased to be so useful. The other Slow Horses are also a joy but with some there is also a touch of pathos. One or two are traumatised. There’s another one who’s just discovered that there’s only one situation in which he feels truly alive – and that isn’t a situation that’s good for anyone.

London Rules is a very funny book. Mick Herron’s writing is truly fantastic and he has such a gift of observation. Even though I’m new to these characters, I immediately felt like I knew them. This book reveals things that have happened in the past. It doesn’t spoil them; it just makes me want to find out what happened – what is it that made some of these people like this? Especially Shirley. I loved Shirley. Mick Herron is so good at combining tragedy and comedy, showing how closely the two can be linked and how this pulls emotions from us. I now have the first four books and I can’t wait for the time to read them. I love spy novels and so it’s great to find a new series, which definitely gives the genre an original twist, to enjoy and follow.

I went to a book event at Waterstones in Oxford last week in which Andrew Taylor (another favourite author of mine) was interviewed by Mick Herron. It was a wonderful event and it was such a pleasure to meet Mick (on the right below) and tell him how hard I’d fallen for his brilliant books and characters.

Andrew Taylor and Mick Herron

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson

Kolymsky Heights | Lionel Davidson | 1994 (this edn 2015) | Faber & Faber | 478p | Bought copy | Buy the book

Kolymsky Heights by Lionel DavidsonDeep within Siberia lies a science research station that is so secret no scientist who works there is ever allowed to leave. But one day a message gets out. A professor at Oxford University receives a note that is no note – a cigarette paper that conceals a coded plea, imploring the professor to ‘send me therefore the man’. The professor is not above doing a little bit of work for government agencies (after all, he may have taught some of their agents) and soon an agent from the CIA is helping him to work out just who the message is from and who this other man might me. It isn’t that difficult to work out either. As for the latter, the professor knows him as the Raven, but to the CIA he is Jean-Baptiste Porteur, otherwise known as Johnny Porter, a native Canadian with a gift for languages, a fascination for Arctic tribes and in possession of a past. The scientist trapped in Siberia did something significant for Porter in the past. For that reason alone Porter is prepared to risk everything to go in after him.

What follows is an extraordinarily detailed and meticulous account of Porter’s journey into Siberia. Nothing is left to chance, or to the reader’s imagination. Porter is an astonishing, obsessive, driven individual. He is determined to leave no trail and as a result his journey is an agonising Arctic sea voyage aboard a Japanese vessel. But he doesn’t just transform himself the once, when he finally reaches Siberia he does it again, this time he is a truck driver. All of the time he manages to fit in (largely due to his languages and native Canadian appearance) while still standing out as something of a curiosity. He uses smiles, charisma, generosity and charm to win over all he meets. Women love him, men want to be his friend. The true Porter is a man deeply buried and there is a sense that only the scientist hidden within the research station knows the truth.

Kolmysky Heights is a very unusual thriller. Arguably, the mystery at the heart of the novel is of far less importance than the lengths to which Porter will go to find it and to escape with it. This is much more about the hunt and the method and in that sense it reads like a classic spy thriller. Of course, the novel was first published 21 years ago but it reaches back further than that. There is a severe detachment between Porter and the reader. While we marvel at the lengths he will go to, we are never allowed to get too close, the author’s persona frequently coming between us. There is a merciless ruthlessness in Porter’s actions and even though the novel hints at a developing love affair I remained sceptical about its future but having said that – do we know him enough to make this kind of judgement? There are clues about his past and they do go some way towards explaining his present, while not perhaps indicating what he wants. All in all, Porter is a fascinating, complicated individual and Kolymsky Heights is very much a novel about him, more than it is about anyone or anything else.

It’s not all Porter, though. I did enjoy the portrait of the Oxford professor and his secretary. There’s a charm about this scenario which contrasts sharply with Porter and his world. Some of the characters we meet in Siberia are vividly distinct, many of whom are making a living in the most extreme of killer environments, whether at sea or driving great trucks (‘boats’) along the frozen rivers of a winter Siberia. One of the characters we meet, Ludmilla, is unforgettable. One of the greatest characters of the novel is without doubt Siberia itself – its relentless cold, its rich cultural heritage, its harsh history, its cruelty and its frozen beauty are all made real on the page in what is an astonishing achievement by Davidson.

Kolymsky Heights has been reissued this year with an introduction by Philip Pullman in which Pullman explains why this is ‘the best thriller I’ve ever read’. This essay is worth reading at the beginning and again at the end. Much of it I agree with. The detail that Davidson conjures up to describe Porter’s journey into and from Siberia is remarkable as well as complex, it is also extremely dramatic and tense. But, for me, there was just a little too much detail – by the end of the book I felt almost qualified to build an Arctic bobik vehicle myself. While these lengthy sections undoubtedly help us to understand Porter’s commitment and ingenuity, not to mention audacity, they do slow down the pace quite considerably. There was also a great deal about the science research station that I wanted to know but this is left completely and quite intentionally secondary to the unerring focus on Porter.

Kolymsky Heights is a thoroughly immersive thriller, rich in Siberian history and culture and it is freezing cold to the core. The novel, nor Porter, engaged my emotions but I don’t think it wanted to. This is a novel – and leading character – to marvel at. It’s not my favourite thriller – that title belongs to Frederick Forsyth’s The Day of the Jackal – but it is groundbreaking and significant as well as one of the finest depictions of a quest that I am likely ever to read.

The Distance by Helen Giltrow

The Distance | Helen Giltrow | Hb 2014, Pb 2015 | Orion | 400p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Distance by Helen GiltrowOnce upon a time Charlotte Alton was Karla, a woman who made people disappear, a shadowy figure who dealt in secrets. She thought those times were in the past until she is persuaded to put a man inside the ‘Program’ to make a hit. The Program is a new type of prison, an area of the city abandoned by its inhabitants, walled in, its streets and tenements now a battlefield for the very worst type of criminals, thrown together into an experiment that leaves many dead. There is a special link between Karla and the man, Simon, that she must place within this prison hell. They are tied together by events that happened in the past, something so terrible that even the gangster who controls life and death within the Program knows all about it. And then there’s Simon’s hit, a woman who seems to have no existence within the Program but is there all the same. But what has she done? And why is somebody somewhere prepared to pay such a price to silence her?

Although it is Simon on the inside of the Program while Karla is supposedly safe on the outside, both characters are about to enter a very dark place. In The Distance Helen Giltrow immerses us – and her characters – in the shady world of spies, in which nobody is who they seem and where every action has its consequences, not necessarily straight away, sometimes many years later, but these consequences are inescapable. The story has several perspectives, with chapters moving between the key characters, building the tension and pace. Apart from Karla and Simon, we have the secret agent Powell, flown over from America to investigate a dead spy’s source. This investigation parallels that of Karla’s into the background of the female hit as well as Simon’s own hunt in the Program while maintaining his fake identity.

This is a dark world and it is also a violent one. Charlotte Alton might enjoy the opera and the other rich trappings of her life in London but The Distance frequently reminds us of another type of life entirely. This is a gory novel in places and there are strong torture scenes. The gore was a bit too much for me, to be honest, and I did have to skip the odd page because of it. Some of the people we meet are truly horrendous and all the more so because they seem so calm, clinical and practical in their administration of violence and torture.

The Distance is a fine debut from Helen Giltrow. It is an extremely tense and menacing novel, rich in atmosphere and mood as well as confident and intelligent. It is full of shocks, surprises and twists. The setting of the Program is especially well painted and vividly imagined. It is a haunting, terrifying place, brilliantly created.

If you enjoy a clever spy novel then The Distance is most definitely the book for you.

The Agent Runner by Simon Conway

Publisher: Pembury House
Pages: 283
Year: 2014
Buy: Paperback, Kindle
Source: Review copy

The Agent Runner by Simon ConwayReview
Ed Malik, a complicated man whose heritage is drawn from both east and west, is an agent runner for M16, focused on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Ten years after 9/11, these are dangerous times. The hunt for Osama Bin Laden is reaching a close; the trap is almost set. Malik runs an agent known as Nightingale who is placed at the heart of ISI, Pakistan’s secret spy network, but in the aftermath of Bin Laden’s capture and execution Nightingale is shot in the head, killed by a senior member of ISI. The cloak is lifted. Ed becomes known to Major-General Javid Aslam Khan, otherwise known as the Hidden Hand, Pakistan’s spy master, legendary and lethal.

With his cover blown, Ed is dismissed from M16 and has no choice but to create a new life for himself in London, working in the private sector, keeping what links he can with Pakistan. Matters are complicated when Ed falls for Leyla, his new boss’s daughter, an extraordinary young woman and a magnet for danger. But Ed cannot forget Nightingale, finding himself drawn back to the mountains of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush, an area ruled by anarchic tribal chiefs, a place to which Khan and his henchmen are also drawn and where the most terrible of plots are hatched and born.

The Agent Runner is a spy thriller that barely takes time to draw breath. At under 300 pages, it can be read easily in one or two days and this adds to the pace created by the novel’s movement across London, Lahore, Afghanistan and the Hindu Kush. The action moves between people as well as places, between Ed Malik and Khan and his agents, most especially Noman, a man who has taken to extremes the skills of torture and inquisition, but the reader is kept a step or two behind throughout. There is no one in this novel without secrets, not even Leyla is innocent.

If there were one word I had to use to describe The Agent Runner it would be tense. This is an edge of the seat read. But I would also describe it as tragic. The characters are the product of horrendous events and hatred and few emerge unscathed. Ed is damaged – the fate of Nightingale is never forgotten – and his drive for vengeance is at odds with the other part of him that wants peace. But we are never allowed deep enough into Ed’s thoughts to know what he really wants. He’s a sympathetic character but he remains unknowable. Khan on the other hand is the bogeyman, the monster – although he has a rival in Noman. There are some truly chilling moments, especially those that circle around suicide bombers. We are never allowed to forget what a frightening world this is. And it is a violent world from which Simon Conway doesn’t flinch.

I thoroughly enjoyed Simon Conway’s Rock Creek Park and, while The Agent Runner is a very different type of thriller, set a world away from the events and themes of Rock Creek Park, taking this reader at least into unfamiliar and disturbing territory, it is a powerful read from start to finish.

Other review
Rock Creek Park