Killers of a Certain Age by Deanna Raybourn

Last weekend, my partner and I drove up to southern Ohio/northern Kentucky to visit friends. As we always do on a long car ride, we downloaded a few audiobooks to listen to. We do that in case the first one we pick isn’t to our liking. Well, we never got passed our first choice, *Killers of a Certain Age* by Deanna Raybourn.

This is the story of four dear friends, all women, who worked together for forty years and are about to retire. What is most unusual about these ladies is that they were all assassins for an extra-governmental agency. As they gather to celebrate their retirement, they discover that they have become targets themselves. The rest of the book explores how they work together to deal with this surprising turn of events, the hunters becoming the hunted.

This book is a romp! It is fantastic fun for those of us over fifty and learning all the challenges that go with getting older. These sixty-year-old women discuss everything that aging women go through while trying to stay alive and clear their names. While the dialog is snappy and engaging, the plot is propulsive and clever. My phone automatically restarted the book each time I plugged it into the car as we drove around last weekend. And no matter how short the drive, we couldn’t turn it off.

My rating: 4/5

Going Zero by Anthony McCarten

I am of two minds with this book. The story is a fascinating and propulsive thriller, but the editing in the first half of the book is abysmal. I learned about this book from a blog post. The blogger read and recommended it. The premise is right up my ally, so I got it from by library and started reading.

The story is about a beta test run by a company called Fusion who have partnered with the CIA. Together they have developed a program that is designed to track down any individual no matter how much they try to hide. The book begins as the test starts. There are ten people selected from those who applied. They each have thirty days to “go zero” and avoid capture. If they succeed, they win three million dollars. While the book follows each of the ten, one of them in particular is the focus. She is a librarian who no one expects much from. But she is much more than she seems.

As I said, this a great thriller. The author is a Hollywood screenwriter, and the book has the feel of a blockbuster summer movie. Unfortunately, there were times where editing mistakes just yanked me right out of the story. Here is one example. A character is crossing Lake Ontario from Oswego, NY to Canada. The book explains that a helicopter out of Buffalo is crossing Lake Michigan on its way to intercept. But Lake Michigan is far west of Buffalo on the other side of Michigan, in the opposite direction. Then later the same helicopter is said to be out of Detroit.

Aside from these unfortunate interruptions, the book is fantastic. It explores ideas around privacy, relationships, doing the right thing, and the corruption of power. And all of this in a page turner with twists throughout it. Without the errors, this would be five stars from me.

My rating: 4/5

Starter Villain by John Scalzi

The author’s previous novel Red Shirts plays off the trope that every time in Star Trek a team goes on an away mission, a red shirted security officer dies. The characters slowly realize this is happening to them, and they need to figure out what to do about it. I read this book and enjoyed it very much. It was clever, funny, and propulsive. So when Scalzi came out with his latest novel Starter Villain, I was excited to read it.

The main character is Charlie, a down on his luck divorced substitute teacher trying to buy a pub and change his life. After learning that his estranged Uncle has died, one of his employees shows up with an unusual request. She wants him to “stand up” for his uncle at his funeral. While doing so, things get even weirder. Eventually, he learns that his uncle was a villain, complete with a volcanic island lair and genetically altered sentient cats.

Despite the absurd premise, this novel actually works in the same quirky way that Red Shirts works. Charlie is an every man that is easy to root for as he begins to learn the family business and attempt to hold his own against his competitors. Naturally, not everything goes to plan and the ending is one that I feel like I should have seen coming, but I didn’t. I was simply too busy enjoying the ride to try to figure out where it was going.

My rating: 4/5

The Bezzle by Cory Doctorow

I got an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley.com in return for offering an honest review. This book is the sequel to the author’s previous novel Red Team Blues. Like in that book, forensic accountant Marty Hench is the protagonist. And despite the seeming dullness of his career, this book is a thriller that had me from the start.

The plot takes place in the past of the first novel. In other words, this is technically a prequel. He is telling someone about how he came to learn so much about prisons while never having served time in one. The story opens on Catalina Island with Marty repeatedly joining a friend named Scott there for vacations. They come across something odd going on there that propels the plot forward. A driving aspect of the plot is the friendship between Marty and Scott. The relationship is deep and affectionate and one I’ve rarely seen in modern novels—deep male friendship.

The story is even better than in the first book. There was a lag in that one. This book is maybe a little slow to start, but once the initiating action takes place, it takes off. The story does come around to a selfless sacrifice that may be surprising but is completely relatable and realistic. If you enjoyed the first of this series, you owe it to yourself to pick up this one soon.

My rating: 4/5

The Centre by Ayesha Manazir Siddiqi

I listened to this on my home from a recent trip. I was very much looking forward to reading this book. The premise of a mysterious language learning school that would teach its students to be fluent in any language in ten days really intrigued me. Unfortunately, the author didn’t deliver on that promise.

Ayesha is a young woman who feels lost in her life, not sure of which way to go. She is a translator who writes subtitles for movies but wants desperately to break into translating literature. After an altercation with her boyfriend who is a very successful translator in many languages, he tells her about the secret school called The Centre. He is only allowed one referral and must otherwise never speak of the school. Ayesha attends the school multiple times and becomes more and more interested in how they do what they do. The revelation is shocking and opens up questions of patriarchy and feminism.

I am sorry to say that I was very disappointed with this book. It developed excruciatingly slowly. It was described as a “thriller” by my library. It was most definitely not a thriller. There was too much quotidian detail that seemed completely unrelated to the plot. I like character driven novels, but this was neither character driven nor plot driven. It was as if the author couldn’t decide which kind of book to write. The subject matter and even the reveal offered a lot of interesting content to explore. But it was muddled by the author’s poor handling and needed a better editor.

My rating: 2/5

Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters

I listened to Underground Airlines by Ben H. Winters on audiobook on a recent road trip. It takes place in an alternate modern-day USA where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on his way to his inauguration in 1861. That same year a series of Constitutional amendments were ratified that enshrined slavery forever. A network of modern-day abolitionists called the Underground Airlines works to help escaped slaves find safety in Canada.

The main character is a former runaway slave working for the US Marshal’s office returning runaway slaves. He is in the process of infiltrating a cell of the Underground Airlines to return his latest runaway assignment. But something is a little off with this assignment.

As the mystery unravels, this world of modern, regulated slavery is laid out in all its horror for individuals and society. The story is compelling and realistic, never descending to polemics or speechifying. It all blends well into a sophisticated story of human complexity dealing with systemic racism enshrined in the Constitution. A fantastic “what if” historical thriller.

My rating: 4/5

Red Team Blues by Cory Doctorow

The silhouette of a running man seen through a keyhole on a blue background.

Cory Doctorow’s latest novel is a mystery/thriller about a forensic accountant. Doesn’t exactly sound like the makings of a thriller, does it? I found it engaging and really liked the main character Marty Hench, the accountant. He is an usual character with a perspective that is both practical and technical. But I have to say that I enjoyed him more than the novel itself.

The book starts with a bang, one that involves cryptocurrency. Marty helps an old friend who gets himself into trouble and yields a giant payday. Just when he thinks he is retiring on his newfound wealth, things go sideways, and Marty finds himself on the run. Maybe I was just expecting too much, but this is where the story fell a little flat for me. Much of his “on the run” time, he isn’t doing much more than laying low.

Marty himself is very interesting. A sixty-seven-year-old accountant is an unusual protagonist. Somehow, Doctorow pulls it off. I found myself continuing to turn the pages even during the slow places. Doctorow has much to say about technology and society in this novel at the level of everyday people. It engaged me. But it felt like a setup for the book to follow. In that way, it totally worked. I am looking forward to the next book in the trilogy.

My rating: 4/5