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Audiobook Review – Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief

If you’re looking for an intriguing look into the inner workings of the KGB from the beginning of the Cold War until its end, Tenant H. Bagley’s Spymaster: Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief should be in your collection.

From the dark days of World War II through the Cold War, Sergey A. Kondrashev was a major player in Russia’s notorious KGB espionage apparatus. Rising through its ranks through hard work and keen understanding of how the spy and political games are played, he “handled” American and British defectors, recruited Western operatives as double agents, served as a ranking officer at the East Berlin and Vienna KGB bureaus, and tackled special assignments from the Kremlin.

During a 1994 television program about former spymasters, Kondrashev met and began a close friendship with a former foe, ex–CIA officer Tennent H. “Pete” Bagley, whom the Russian asked to help write his memoirs.

Because Bagley knew so about much of Kondrashev’s career (they had been on opposite sides in several operations), his penetrating questions and insights reveal slices of never-revealed espionage history that rival anything found in the pages of Ian Fleming, Len Deighton, or John le Carr. This includes chilling tales of surviving Stalin’s purges while superiors and colleagues did not, of plotting to reveal the Berlin Tunnel, of quelling the Hungarian Revolution and “Prague Spring” independence movements, and of assisting in arranging the final disposition of the corpses of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun. Kondrashev also details equally fascinating KGB propaganda and disinformation efforts that shaped Western attitudes throughout the Cold War.

Because publication of these memoirs was banned by Putin’s regime, Bagley promised Kondrashev to have them published in the West. They are now available to all who are fascinated by vivid tales of international intrigue.

Spymaster follows the career and exploits of Sergei Kondrashev as he wended his way through the different departments and intrigues of Soviet state security between the end of World War II and the fall of the Soviet Union. We hear about everything from the subversion of staff at the American embassy in Moscow to the suppression of anti-Communist movements in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The author’s obvious personal connection with Kondrashev, as well as his own experience as Kondrashev’s competitor in the CIA, gives Spymaster a seasoned, well thought out perspective on the shadowy workings behind the scenes in some of the most important bits of modern European and global history.

Bronson Pinchot is a master storyteller, and his narration of Spymaster was just another example of his art. His pacing is, as always, in that sweet spot of not too fast, but not too slow. He does an excellent job of keeping the listener’s attention and helping to visualize the scenes and people that flow through the book.

If you’re interested in true-life spy-versus-spy stories, or are just a history buff who needs to fill in some blanks about the Cold War, I think you’ll enjoy Spymaster.

Audiobook Review – The Way I Heard It

You’re probably familiar with Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs and narrator for a plethora of documentaries and other programs on cable TV. The Way I Heard It brings together stories from his podcast and autobiographical musings from his life and exploits.

Emmy Award-winning gadfly Mike Rowe presents a ridiculously entertaining, seriously fascinating collection of his favorite episodes from America’s number-one short-form podcast, The Way I Heard It, along with a host of memories, ruminations, and insights. It’s a delightful collection of mysteries. A mosaic. A memoir. A charming, surprising must-have. 

Mike Rowe’s The Way I Heard It collects 35 fascinating stories “for the curious mind with a short attention span”. Five-minute mysteries about people you know, filled with facts that you didn’t. Movie stars, presidents, Nazis, rank traitors, and bloody do-gooders – they’re all here, waiting to shake your hand, hoping you’ll remember them. Delivered with Mike’s signature blend of charm, wit, and ingenuity, their stories are part of a larger mosaic – a memoir crammed with recollections, insights, and intimate, behind-the-scenes moments drawn from Mike’s remarkable life and career.

This audiobook is read by the author, and I couldn’t imagine anyone who could have done a better job.  Rowe’s narration and pacing are perfect.  All of his experience in keeping our attention with his warm, conversational tone shines through in each chapter of this book. 

The stories the author tells, both about himself and the other people he captures with his words, range from funny to touching, but are always good enough to keep you in the driveway until we come to their end.  While a few are a bit racy, and there is a bit of rough language sprinkled lightly through this book, I would have no worries about letting my 12 year old listen to them as we drive or while we’re doing things around the house.

If you’re a friend of listening to someone tell tales, especially if that person seems to genuinely enjoy the subject, then The Way I Heard It will be a treat.

 

Book Review – Knowingly Familiar

Alma Boykin’s latest in her Familiar Tales series continues its unique blend of family and magic in Knowingly Familiar.

When Ghosts Walk . . .

Something moves. A Mesopotamian curse sends ripples through the magical community of Riverton. Mages André and Lelia Lestrang find themselves fighting ghosts from their past. The battle draws them closer to Master Saldovado and the clans, closer perhaps than Lelia’s heart dares to go. How long before Patrick Lee and Riverton’s other magic users demand answers about the clans? The Familiars are keeping the secret. For now.

But breaking ancient spells comes easily for shadow mages. Juggling parenthood, budgets, car repairs, school schedules, and a six-year-old daughter’s desire for a pet unicorn? (Or a house dragon, preferably pastel pink.) That’s difficult!

Lelia Chan and her family continue their adventures in life, love, and keeping the forces of ancient evil at bay in Knowingly Familiar.

The story follows the day-to-day happenings in a family that is inextricably intertwined with magic and its impact on the world. They do laundry, meet with teachers, and prepare to defend themselves against the wrath of ancient evil.

Like the rest of the series, this is a narrative driven by the relationship between the unique characters that Ms. Boykin has created and fleshed out. Lelia’s family life includes budgeting, juggling schedules, and teaching her older children about their magical talents. Her relationship with Arthur Saldovado becomes closer with each book in the series, and a very sweet, moving sequence in this book cements his role as her father figure.

Knowingly Familiar is a quick, easy read that will hold onto the reader until its last page. This far into the series, you really ought to start with the first book, but if you’ve enjoyed the other Familiar Tales, you’ll love this one.

Book Review – Judiciously Familiar

Alma Boykin continues her unique and enjoyable Familiar Tales series with  Judiciously Familiar:

“By the Pricking of my thumbs/ Something wicked this way comes!”

“Caw! Caw!”

A raven the size of an eagle appears in Riverton. When it begins haunting Familiars, Lelia and André Lestrang have to decide if it needs their special attention. Lelia, battling fatigue and postpartum depression, juggles family, magic, and working at Belle, Book, and Blacklight. Her employer, Arthur Saldovado, too wonders about the raven and its meaning.

Something from the past stirs, something dark and deep. A new sorceress and the raven hint at dangers hiding in the shadows. Shadows perhaps too dark even for shadow mages to master.

The main character of the series, Lelia Chan, has come a long way since her introduction as a troubled teen trying to get her life together.  Now, she’s a full time mom, wife, and shadow mage.

When Lelia got married and had her first baby, I was worried that Ms. Boykin would have to move on to another character to center these tales around, but she has done a masterful job of letting Lelia evolve and grow as the series progresses.  We get to meet her new sons and see how being a mother has made her stronger and more dedicated than ever.

As I found in the rest of the series, a gentle humor runs through Judiciously Familiar.  Additionally, the plot has a tension to it that builds to a crescendo in the third act.  The pacing is not overly swift, but Boykin’s writing keeps the reader’s attention throughout. I worked my way through the book in a few hours of dedicated reading, but you can definitely take your time and savor this one in small bites, if you wish.

You definitely need to have read the rest of the series before starting this one, as Judiciously Familiar includes many characters and situations from earlier books that fit together in an intricate mosaic.  By now, the Familiar Tales world is well fleshed-out, so treat yourself and enjoy them first.

Book Review – Tales Around The Supper Table

Some of my favorite writers have joined forces to publish an exquisite collection of short stories – Tales Around The Supper Table – An Anthology of Texas Writers:

This collection is from ten different Texas authors. There was no ‘world’ or set up for the stories. It was up to the individual authors to write their stories, so you get a wide variety! Vampires, dragons, werewolves, enchanted swords, runaways, SciFi, and cowboys… Stories for everyone in this collection of Texas authors!

Like the blurb says, there is something in this one for everyone.

Alma T.C. Boykin’s Pigmintum Regium tells the sword and sorcery tale from the dragon’s perspective, while Monalisa Foster’s Caliborne’s Curse is some of the best, and funniest, romance I’ve ever read. Dorothy Grant’s story, Business Not Bullets, gives us a peak into a universe I hope she explores. LawDog’s Bad Night in Falls Town gives the reader excellent urban fantasy, while Peter Grant returns to the Old West in his unmistakable way of setting the table and serving up a great yarn.

What I wouldn’t give to sit at that table, listening to these master storytellers plot out their latest works, go over details, and offer advice and knowledge to make each other’s stories just that much better. Westerns, sword and sorcery, urban fantasy, crime, and everything in between fill the pages of Tales Around The Supper Table.

The stories are well written, each one intriguing in its own way. The authors all take their time to grab the reader, hold on for 8 seconds, then pass the reins to the next storyteller. I had to ration my reading time with this one, or I would have burned through it in a night.

If you’re looking for something different, Tales Around the Supper Table is definitely recommended.

Book Review – Intensely Familiar

Alma Boykin continues the story of Lelia Chan and her Familiar Tay in Intensely Familiar.

Home is the Hunter . . .

Something moves in the darkness, hunting the hunters. An ambush leaves Lelia Chan weak and troubled. Her husband André returns from an extended deployment with problems of his own, some old, some new. Both shadow mages and their Familiars need rest. Their enemy, however, does not.

Magic solves magical problems: that’s the rule among Riverton’s magic users. But what if it doesn’t? Especially against a foe who is Intensely Familiar.

Intensely Familiar starts with a punch to the gut and keeps you reading until the last sentence.  Like the rest of the series, it is a character-driven tale with fast, intense action sequences. It’s not a thriller, but it keeps your attention through good story telling and pacing.

Lelia Chan is wholly fleshed out by now, but Ms. Boykin continues to let her grow and evolve without forcing the character forward.  Her husband, Andre, is also well done, but we are still learning about him as a central character in the story.  Other characters, such as her employer, Arthur, round out a cast that we can all relate to.

Intensely Familiar ends a multi-book story arc and hints to more in the future.  I’m definitely looking forward to seeing where Ms. Boykin takes her characters.

Review – Forget Nothing

Michelle C. Meyers and Jason Anspach teamed up to explore the life one of the more intriguing characters in the Galaxy’s Edge series.  Their work pays off big time in “Forget Nothing

She Chose the Hardest Way

The daughter of a Legion war hero, fighting was in Andien Broxin’s blood. But the battles Republic marines face on strange and alien worlds are a far cry from the vaunted, brutal, no-holds-barred conflicts fought at the edge of the galaxy by the elite legionnaires.

Until a devastating war erupts right in the Republic’s stellar backyard.

Newly stationed on a mid-core planet being harassed by terrorist revolutionaries, Andien and her fellow “hullbusters” find themselves right in the middle of a desperate fight for survival. All their training, standards, discipline—all the hard paths—have led to this. If she and her fellow marines are to come out of this alive, Andien will have to find out who she truly is…and what she can become.

We first met Andien Broxin on Kublar in Legionnaire, the first book in the series, and the character became more and more important to the series in later books.  She’s tough, talented, and dedicated to her mission.  Forget Nothing takes us back to when Andien was an officer in the Republic Marines.  This female warrior is capable, but believable. Yes, she kicks ass and leads from the front, but she’s not a cartoonish GI Jane who beats up grown men and has a pithy comment to spit out over their prostrate bodies.

Meyers and Anspach wrote this character in a way that reminds me of the best leaders I have known, regardless of their gender.  She pushes herself constantly, but the characters has limits that push back.  She’s experienced, but has things to learn as the story goes on.  She’s brave, but is written in a way that you can feel her overcoming the shock and fear of combat.

The other character that stood out in the story was Gunny O’Neill.  If you’ve ever known an old, crusty NCO who was a master at motivating his troops with sharp comments and wry wit, you’ll recognize him immediately.  I laughed long and hard at some of his absolutely genius dialogue.  I’m not ashamed to say that I’ve heard some, but not all, of it before, because it’s been directed at me.

Forget Nothing is well-paced, and Khristine Hvam’s narration is almost 100% spot on.  The story flows through several sequences that flesh out Andien Broxin as a person and an officer, then rushes into several excellent combat sequences.  The character is allowed to make mistakes, then struggle to overcome them.

If you’ve enjoyed the other books in Galaxy’s Edge, I think you’ll enjoy how the authors filled out this character and gave us a good understanding of her backstory and how she’s put together. I hope this isn’t the last we see of Andien.

Review – Going Ballistic

Dorothy Grant puts out her best work so far in an action and character driven piece entitled “Going Ballistic

When her plane tries to come apart at apogee during a hijack, ballistic airline pilot Michelle Lauden handles the worst day she could imagine. After getting down without losing any passengers or crew, though, she finds her troubles have just begun!

The country she’s landed in has just declared independence from the Federation. The Feds intended her passengers to be the first casualties in the impending war – and they’re not happy she’s survived to contradict their official narrative in the news.

The local government wants to find her to give her a medal. The Feds are hunting her to give her an unmarked grave. As they both close in, Michelle’s running out of options and time. The only people able to protect her are an accident investigation team on loan from the Federation’s enemies… the same enemies who sent her hijackers in the first place.

And they have their own plans for her, and the country she’s in!

Going Ballistic weaves a strong female lead into a fast-paced, engaging plot that rarely stops to take a deep breath.  This story grabs you by the throat and keeps your attention until the last sentence.

Mrs. Grant’s ability to bring characters to life in a very small number of words makes this story move along without creating cardboard-cutouts.  Michelle is strong and capable, but also has the emotional depth to fall apart when she needs to.  Blondie, one of the male supporting characters, is there to help, but it is Michelle’s story and Grant leads us through it with a practiced hand.

Going Ballistic is great for laying in a hammock on a summer day or by the fire during a winter night.  Just make sure you have time to read it through, because you’ll be trying to guess what comes next until you can return to it.

Review – Rimworld: The Rift

Jim Curtis returns to his Rimworld universe and takes it in a whole new direction in The Rift:

Danny Ortega was a failure. He couldn’t tolerate the implant to be a starship captain…

But Danny Ortega has run his deep space research vessel Ghost alone for years, flaky AI and all, mapping the most unstable and unexplored regions of the Rift for the Cartographers Guild. When his latest mission lands in a mass graveyard of ships, including some ships out of legend, lost for hundreds of years, the guild isn’t happy with him.

He picks up a misfit crew out of the asteroids and the games begin!

Turns out he’ll need them not just for research and salvage, but to help him keep his ship! As word gets out that he has artifacts and is returning remains, Danny finds he’s gone from chasing a prize to becoming one himself…

Unfortunately for his enemies, Danny didn’t get his own ship by being an easy target or giving up. His odd connections and crew have plenty of surprises up their sleeves, too!

The Rift is a much more detailed, character-driven story than the other books in this series. While there is action, Curtis took his time and developed the main character, Danny, from a loner to a leader, from a lonely man to one that learns the meaning of family.

That’s not to say that the story moves slowly. This is a page turner crafted by a master storyteller. The plot rolls smoothly off the page, with believable and engaging twists and turns. I found myself losing hours to this book as I kept reading just one more page.

Unlike a lot of books in an already established series, a new reader could pick up this one and enjoy it. It resides in the same universe as Into the Green and Militia Up, but don’t inhabit the same space.

The Rift is definitely recommended for summer reading, especially if you’re in the mood for something different.

Audiobook Review – Gods and Legionnaires

Nick Cole and Stephen Anspach return to their foundational Savage Wars trilogy with Gods and Legionnaires:

The Coalition is reeling. New Vega and its other worlds have fallen beneath the boot of the newly allied Savage marines, and the death count continues to rise at a staggering rate. One thing is clear: The war to come will be a fight for the very survival of the species. For both sides in this conflict, now is the time to become what fate, and victory, demand.

The Savages – post-human monsters who believe themselves to be gods – are intent on remaking civilization in their own violent and pathological image. Yet their alliance is tenuous. Among the many tribes of the Uplifted, as they call themselves, the struggle for supremacy rages on. All know that in the end there can be only one tribe. One leader. One truth.

Meanwhile humanity’s last, desperate hope is the formation of a new kind of fighting force: The Legion. Those select few who are hardy enough – or foolish enough – to undertake the relentless, grueling, and merciless candidate training will have the chance to be transformed into mythical heroes…or die trying. They will be pushed beyond their physical and mental limits as they seek to survive an unforgiving planet, lost and derelict ghost spaceships, and, worst of all, the cold, unflinching brutality of Tyrus Rechs. At the end of this crucible, only the one percent of the one percent will earn the right to be called…

…Legionnaires.

Gods and Legionnairesis really two books in one.  The first part is told from the perspective of Crometheus, a Savage marine who was part of the conquering force at New Vega.  In the second part, Tyrus Rechs puts the first volunteers to The Legion through a crucible designed to weed out the weak and perfect the strong.

In the “Gods” part of the book, we learn more about the Savages.  Crometheus delves into his own history and how it intertwines with the Uplifted, as they call themselves.  The tale is reminiscent of Imperator, which dealt with the origins of Goth Sullus.  The authors crank it up to eleven here, though.

There is some action as the Savages continue their crusade to conquer the known galaxy, but most of the story occurs in the main character’s head.  You definitely have to pay attention to the story as it unfolds, because it wraps around itself at several points.

“Legionnaires” follows a group of recruits as they go through Tyrus Rechs’ version of boot-camp, Ranger indoctrination, and hourly gut-checks.  Characters from the battle of New Vega return, but they’re joined by new faces that join them in the grueling training put on by the galaxy’s supreme warrior.

Stephen Lang’s narration is very good.  His telling of the almost stream of consciousness “Gods” part of the book is excellent.  We already know he can narrate an action scene, so seeing him deal with the psychology and inner voices of all of the characters in Gods and Legionnaires was a treat.

This is the middle book of a trilogy, so we know where they came from and we know they’re going somewhere.  Gods and Legionnaires is a great way to spend a few days trying to map out the road between those two places.

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