A- #BookReview: This Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour

A- #BookReview: This Great Hemisphere by Mateo AskaripourThis Great Hemisphere by Mateo Askaripour
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, speculative fiction, political thriller
Pages: 432
Published by Dutton Books on July 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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From the award-winning and bestselling author of Black Buck : A speculative novel about a young woman—invisible by birth and relegated to second-class citizenship—who sets off on a mission to find her older brother, whom she had presumed dead but who is now the primary suspect in a high-profile political murder.
Despite the odds, Sweetmint, a young invisible woman, has done everything right her entire life—school, university, and now a highly sought-after apprenticeship with one of the Northwestern Hemisphere’s premier inventors, a non-invisible man belonging to the dominant population who is as eccentric as he is enigmatic. But the world she has fought so hard to build after the disappearance of her older brother comes crashing down when authorities claim that not only is he well and alive, he’s also the main suspect in the murder of the Chief Executive of the Northwestern Hemisphere. 
A manhunt ensues, and Sweetmint, armed with courage, intellect, and unwavering love for her brother, sets off on a mission to find him before it’s too late. With five days until the hemisphere’s big election, Sweetmint must dodge a relentless law officer who’s determined to maintain order and an ambitious politician with sights set on becoming the next Chief Executive by any means necessary.
With the awe-inspiring defiance of The Power and the ever-shifting machinations of House of Cards , This Great Hemisphere is a novel that brilliantly illustrates the degree to which reality can be shaped by non-truths and vicious manipulations, while shining a light on our ability to surprise ourselves when we stop giving in to the narratives others have written for us.

My Review:

Shakespeare said it best, but the Bard said an awful lot of things very, very well, which is why we keep quoting him. In The Merchant of Venice (Act 1, Scene 3), there’s a famous proverb that says that, “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose.” It’s something the reader is forced to reckon with in This Great Hemisphere – even if the characters for the most part don’t have the education to recognize the phenomenon.

They’re not supposed to. That’s part of the story. In fact, a more accurate paraphrase of that quote as it applies to This Great Hemisphere would be that “the devil can WRITE Scripture for his purpose.” because that is exactly what has happened during the five centuries between our now and the future experienced by Sweetmint and her people.

As Sweetmint discovers over the course of this story, there’s another quote that applies even more, from a part of the Bible that the powers-that-be of the Northwestern Hemisphere have undoubtedly excised as part of their thoroughgoing revision of Scripture to suit their purposes. It’s the one from Ecclesiastes (1:9) that goes: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Or as it was put more succinctly in Battlestar Galactica, “This has all happened before. All of this will happen again.”

But Sweetmint and her friends do not know any of this when her story begins. It may have all happened before – in fact it has all happened before – but it hasn’t happened before TO HER and her perspective is what carries the story from hope and compliance to desperation, rebellion and tragedy. And maybe, just maybe, back to hope – or at least a brief approximation thereof.

But what is it that has happened before? Sweetmint’s story – or the story that takes place around her and through her, is just the kind of metaphor that science fiction does well when it takes an issue that is real and present – and generally terrible – and shifts it in time and space, alters just a few of the parameters – and forces the reader to see an obscured truth for what it really is.

This Great Hemisphere is set on Earth, five centuries into a future where a portion of the human population is born invisible. Because humans are gonna human, and governments always need a common enemy to class as less than human to keep everyone else in line, invisibles have been cast as a threat and dehumanized in every way possible. They are denied higher education, voting rights, land ownership, good jobs, good housing, etc., etc., etc. Denied all of those things by law and forced to live in remote villages so that the dominant population can never really know them so that they can be more easily demonized.

Sweetmint is supposed to be a “model Invisible” and has earned a place as an intern – not a servant, but an actual intern – with one of the men responsible for the creation of this system. He’s using her for the next step in his “great plan”.

But we see this broken society through Sweetmint’s eyes as the scales are removed from them. She learns that nothing she believes bears much of any resemblance to any objective truth and that the system is rotten from within – always has been and intends to always be so.

What makes the story so compelling is that even as we watch it unravel, we’re still riveted by her attempts to force a new way through. That even though it may be hopeless in the long run, there can be a reprieve in the short run – and possibly more. And we’re there for her and for it – even if the specific future she hoped for is not.

Escape Rating A-: I obviously had a lot of thoughts about this as I was reading it, and I have more. It’s that kind of book.

It does absolutely fly by. The author has done an excellent job of creating a world that is firmly rooted in the history we know and yet manages to shine a light on it from a different corner. Using invisibility as a metaphor for race allows the reader to be firmly grounded in our own historical perspective and yet provides a vector by which anyone can imagine themselves as Sweetmint because there are circumstances in which anyone can be rendered invisible.

I’m all over the map on what I thought and felt about this book, and it’s making writing it up all kinds of difficult. On the one hand, as I said, it’s compelling to read. On a second hand, I felt like the social issues part was a bit heavy-handed – but at the same time, I recognize that my own background makes me more familiar with some of the issues – albeit from a slightly different angle, and as someone whose read a lot of history the repetitive patterns are not exactly news.

From the point of view of someone who reads a lot of science fiction, this very much fits into the spec fic, SFnal tradition of exploring an all too real past and present issue by setting it in either a time or place away from the here and now. Something that even the original Star Trek series did both well and badly – sometimes at the same time – and there’s an episode that’s particularly on point in this regard, Let That Be Your Last Battlefield.

In other words, in yet another attempt to make a long story short and probably fail at it again, This Great Hemisphere is a compelling story, both because of Sweetmint’s originally naive perspective and because the actual political machinations going and increasing enmeshment in the consequences of them – sometimes intentionally but often not. And the ending – oh that was a stunner in a way that just capped off the whole thing while still leaving just a glimmer of possibility – if not necessarily a good one – for the world in which it happens.

Grade A #BookReview: Gryphon by M.L. Buchman

Grade A #BookReview: Gryphon by M.L. BuchmanGryphon (Miranda Chase NTSB #14) by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #14
Pages: 370
Published by Buchman Bookworks on January 23, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
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With the rising threat of Russia, Sweden joins NATO for its own protection. But someone wants to make them pay—in blood. Sweden’s home-built, world-class jet fighters, the Saab JAS 39E Gripen—named for the mythological Gryphon—are falling out of the skies. The stability, the very existence of NATO could be torn apart, as if trapped in the Gryphon’s mighty eagle claws. Can Miranda’s team of air-crash investigators solve the crisis before the powerful lion-half shreds them asunder?

My Review:

Like all of the previous entries in the Miranda Chase series from the very first page in Drone, Gryphon is an edge-of-the-seat political technothriller with World War III looming over every action on every page.

What makes this OMG FOURTEENTH book in the series stand out is that this is the one where all of the hyper-competent people that we have come to know and love over the course of the series so far are anything but.

Not that they don’t still manage to get the job done – because of course they do! – but rather because it’s clear from the opening page that all of the members of Miranda’s team are broken after the events of Osprey – and Miranda herself is the most broken one of them all.

It’s hard to lead anyone anywhere when your heart, your soul and your entire psyche are lying in pieces on the ground at your feet.

But time, tide, plane crashes and international catastrophes wait for no one. Even if not a single one of Miranda’s team remotely has their shit together, between them they still have enough to figure out exactly which enemy is responsible for the recent series of disasters plaguing Sweden’s civilian and military aviation.

Although Sweden doesn’t have a whole lot of enemies. Which doesn’t make Ian Fleming’s old truism any less true, that “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.” It’s just that this time around they’ll have to start by identifying just who they have to stop.

Escape Rating A: Gryphon is a hard read for fans of Miranda Chase and her team. Which isn’t to say that it’s not a good read, because it oh-so-definitely is. But rather, it’s hard to see people that we’ve come to like and respect and care about act this observably broken.

It’s a heartbreaking response to the events of the previous book, but damn it hurts to watch.

But it does make it easy for someone, actually a few someones, to slip a whole lot of things past them all – because they are all very much NOT at the top of their respective games. More like at the bottom.

The crisis is a conundrum, because it only makes sense in bad ways. Either the Swedish aviation industry is having the worst luck in the universe, over and over, or someone is out to get them. And yet, the usual suspects are all quiet.

And on the third hand being held behind someone’s back, considering the current crisis in the Ukraine, blaming Russia for everyone’s troubles is a damnably easy conclusion to jump to. So it becomes a question of whether Russia has faked out literally everyone – or whether someone else is trying to make it look that way in the hopes of, what? Causing World War III? Who is crazy enough to want to ring that bell?

A question which, in its own way, is at the center of what makes this series so damn good. Because both the question and the solution in each entry in the series isn’t about the techno part of the thriller. It’s always about the human factors. Technology may make the events and crises and calamities and near-catastrophes possible, but it’s always human beings who set them into motion for all too human reasons.

And it’s the humans of Miranda’s team – pulling together and putting it all together – that have to stop the worst from happening.

Not that the tech isn’t fascinating and not that we don’t get a lot of it while following Miranda and her team – but it’s the humans we feel for and with and it’s the human cost of the disaster they’re trying to prevent that make us keep turning pages until they pull literally everyone’s fat out of whatever particular fire they’re facing this time around.

And all of that is just, well, harder in Gryphon because the humans on all sides of this particular equation are all broken, The villains are broken because the game they are playing is not worth the cost, and the ‘good guys’ are broken because they’ve been pulling separately instead of pulling together, so they’re a mess and getting messier by the day.

Whether the radical solution they come up with to begin to start fixing their broken places is something that we’ll all get to find out in the next book in this awesome series, Wedgetail. Until that comes out this summer, we’ll all just have to hope right along with the rest of the team.

Review: Osprey by M.L. Buchman

Review: Osprey by M.L. BuchmanOsprey (Miranda Chase NTSB, #13) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #13
Pages: 392
Published by Buchman Bookworks on September 17, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Russia teeters on the brink of collapse, spoiling for a battle to end all wars. All it needs? One thin excuse. World War I began with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. World War II launched with the invasion of Poland. As for Russia's invasion of Ukraine... A Russian flyby of an American CMV-22 Osprey tiltrotor goes desperately wrong over the North Sea. Will the tipping point for World War III break the moment a favored daughter of the Oligarchy goes down in flames? When the NSA's secret military base at Menwith Hill in the UK needs specialized expertise, they call in Miranda Chase. She and her elite team of air-crash investigators must avert a crisis like none before. A crisis that unravels her past, batters at her autism, and threatens to crush her team in the ultimate grinder of East vs. West. "Miranda is utterly compelling!" - Booklist, starred review "Escape A. Five Stars! OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read!" -Reading Reality

My Review:

Osprey, in addition to being about the investigation of a series of airplane crashes, as the books in the Miranda Chase series always are, is fundamentally the story of a woman who has based her life on a series of truths that turn out to be lies.

Miranda Chase is not merely A lead investigator for the National Transportation and Safety Board, but at this point in the series, THE premiere investigator for the NTSB. Miranda, along with her team, are the people that not just the NTSB but federal government all the way up to the President call whenever the crash is either too thorny for a regular investigator OR, as is very much true in this particular case, has the potential to start World War III and/or bring about the end of the world.

Considering the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and other countries, they are likely to be one and the same.

Which is what drags Miranda and her team out of their vacation in Yorkshire, hiking the Herriot Trail, all the way to the top secret US/UK communication and intelligence support station at RAF Menwith Hill, which is, according to Miranda’s teammate Holly Harper, the place where the world ends. Because, on Holly’s last mission for Australia’s SSAR, Menwith Hill’s sister station in Pine Gap ended Holly’s.

This time around, they’re about to end Miranda’s – even as she and her team prevent the end of pretty much everyone else’s in the whole damn world.

Escape Rating A+: This was one of those books that turned out to be a much harder read than I was expecting – even as it sucked me right in and wouldn’t let me go until the end. By saying Osprey is a ‘hard read’ I mean that in the sense that, 13 books into this series, I’ve become very fond of Miranda and her team and hate seeing any of them in serious distress. But it’s clear that this is the 13th book in the series for a reason in that it seems like all the bad luck and worse trouble in Miranda’s life comes home to roost in this one and probably won’t leave anytime soon.

Like all of the books in this series so far, starting with the marvelous Drone and continuing through ALL of the team’s compelling adventures along the way, each story pretty much has two plots. The first is the actual plot that results in the crash that Miranda and company are tasked with investigating. The second line is tied up in a particular team member’s personal circumstances, whether that’s how they become part of the team, falling in love with either a fellow team member, a friend or an enemy, or when those relationships crash and burn.

With the case in Osprey it’s a question of which will burn first, Miranda or the entire world, which makes the stakes the highest they can be on both sides of that equation.

The initial crash could have, and in other circumstances would have, been put down to pilot error combined with a bit of stupid people doing stupid things. In other words, humans just being human – unfortunately at tens of thousands of feet in the air while piloting state of the art aircraft.

The situation escalates, and fast, because the initial less-than-stellar piloting was on the part of a Russian military jet playing ‘chicken’ with a brand new U.S. craft that is capable of switching from taking off like a helicopter to flying like an airplane. Sounds cool, doesn’t it? But when the jet’s wings got tied up in the Osprey’s proprotor, everything went to hell in a handbasket and both countries, already über tense – as they are in real life – were on the brink of nuclear war.

Figuring out how that crash occurred, and the even stupider one that followed, is all in a day’s work for Miranda and her team. The President of the U.S. is thrilled to take her very expert word that the crash was merely the stuff of stupid and not a deliberate provocation to war.

But the Russian side of this equation is a whole lot messier. A mess which raises questions about just how Miranda’s parents REALLY died – because the newly discovered and always obscured – evidence makes it clear that it didn’t exactly happen the way that the world, even the CIA’s hidden world, believed it did. And that’s only the beginning of how Miranda’s world falls apart, even as the rest of the world gets put back together. At least for now.

The reader knows most of what’s coming – at least as far as Miranda’s parents’ deaths are concerned – from the very first scene, so that’s not exactly a spoiler. We know it’s going to be devastating, and we’re waiting for that shoe to drop through the entire book. It’s agonizing. It’s also not all she’ll have to contend with, but getting into that would be a spoiler.

Let’s just say that on Miranda’s personal front, this is a heartbreaking story and it’s hard to watch her even begin to go through the inevitable fallout. Howsomever, as one of the strengths of this series is the way that the characters and relationships change and grow over time, Miranda’s situation is one that I expect to see explore and change and resolve over the next several books in the series, starting with Gryphon, coming in late January of 2024.

One final note; there’s a surprising bit of a parallel to The Last Devil to Die, the most recent book in the Thursday Murder Club series. The leaders of each series, Miranda and Elizabeth, are brought low by heart-shattering personal catastrophes, and it’s up to the other members of their teams to keep the case on track even as their leader, rightfully and righteously, falls apart for an understandable bit. It’s terrible seeing those leaders stumble and fall, but lovely to watch the other members of their teams carry them and carry on.

 

Review: Nightwatch by M.L. Buchman

Review: Nightwatch by M.L. BuchmanNightwatch (Miranda Chase NTSB #12) by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #12
Pages: 370
Published by Buchman Bookworks on February 28, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

As the Arctic melts, the fabled Northwest and Northeast Passages are opening. But are they opening to war?
A Chinese freighter attacked. A sabotaged passenger jet crashed in Quebec. And high overhead an E-4B Nightwatch, America’s fortress-in-the-sky, sees all.
With nations shifting to high alert, Miranda Chase lands once more in the midst of the fray. But first she must fight battles of her own. Can she conquer the emotional chaos her autism unleashes amid the loss of her past? In time to save her team? —And avert the disaster playing out under the Northern Lights?
A tale of high adventure, airplanes, and espionage.
"Miranda is utterly compelling!" - Booklist, starred review“Escape Rating: A. Five Stars! OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read!” -Reading Reality

My Review:

The tragedy of the Northwest Passage in the 19th century was that it wasn’t there. It was so firmly believed that expedition after expedition sailed for the Arctic, determined to trace a route that would traverse the ocean north of Canada and cut shipping time between Europe and Asia. Many explorers gave their lives in search of a route that did not exist, or in search of others whose lives had already been lost in that search.

Fast forward to the 21st century, when Nightwatch takes place. Today, the tragedy of the Northwest Passage is that it IS there.That once-impenetrable passage opened to ships without the need of an icebreaker late in the summer of 2007. Its mirror-image, the Northeast Passage (AKA Northern Sea Route) in the Arctic waters off the Russian coast, opened in 2009. From an ecological standpoint, this is a tragedy. Climate change is melting the polar ice pack. The predictions of where all that water will end up is currently the stuff of disaster movies, but coastlines will be under threat in the decades to come.

But every cloud is supposed to have a silver lining – in this story it’s a silver lining that seems to contain yet another cloud within it.

With the ice pack in retreat, regularly scheduled commercial shipping over these Northern routes will be increasingly viable, and therefore profitable, shortcuts for freight shipments around the world. Cargo shippers will be thrilled at cutting miles, fuel costs, time, and personnel costs for all of their goods.

But someone’s ox is about to get gored. It is inevitable in the long run, but in the short run they have a shot at staving off that evil day. All they have to do is make the experimental attempts at northerly freight routes seem dangerous, or unlucky, or if the saboteurs are lucky – even both.

They’re not. No plan survives contact with Miranda Chase – not even a plan involving container barges and submarines. Particularly not after one of those subs takes a potshot at the plane she’s flying in.

Escape Rating A+: I’ve been a fan of Miranda Chase from her very first investigation in Drone. While her team has gotten bigger – and scattered a bit – and the stakes in her investigations have gotten considerably higher – this series is consistently among my favorite reads. This twelfth entry in the series absolutely continues that streak of winners.

This one begins in three places – which is entirely fitting as it has three tracks that eventually crash into one. Nearly literally.

A Chinese container ship is in the midst of navigating that Northeast Passage, heading for a record breaking run and a promotion for its captain, when it is forced to drop speed and sacrifice that record because one of its screws (read as propellers sorta/kinda) has developed a fault.

Actually, it’s been encouraged to fail by a missile launched from a mysterious, and mysteriously nearby, submarine.

On practically the other side of the world, near Knowlton, Quebec, Miranda’s friends and teammates Jeremy and Taz are investigating the crash of a small passenger jet that seems to have been sabotaged – by one of its passengers. Who was himself sabotaged, and just so happens to be a high-level agent for the CIA.

While Miranda and her completely stressed out partner Andi Wu are on their way to SEATAC to pick up Andi’s high powered and highly stressFUL mother – at least from Andi’s point of view. Andi’s certain that her mother is still disappointed in her for choosing a military career instead of the legal one that her family had all planned out for her.

The cargo ship’s captain and his crew are all alive but he’s rightfully concerned about the reception he’ll receive from his superiors when he finally reaches port.

Taz is both frustrated and peeved because she’s a fan of mystery fiction in general and Louise Penny’s marvelous Chief Inspector Gamache in particular. (As am I) Jeremy doesn’t understand just how badly she wants to visit all of the local sites dedicated to her favorite detective. But the more she and Jeremy dig into this crash, the less likely it is that she’ll have any time to be a tourist.

While Miranda and Andi fly back to Spieden Island with Andi’s mother Ching Wui simmering in the passenger compartment – only to see that the entire island is on fire. Miranda’s home, her private hangar, her vintage airplanes, all her mementos of her life’s journey so far – all are lost. She panics and nearly crashes the plane she’s flying in her extreme distress.

From these three very disparate starts a compelling, page-turning, supercharged story emerges. The injured CIA agent and the dead passengers lead Miranda and her team to multiple plots from the ouster of the current – and always nefarious – head of the agency to that no-longer-speeding cargo ship to a plot to scuttle a high level conference at the edge of the Arctic to discuss – you guessed it – the potential for using that Northern Sea Route in order to get around the long transit times and ever increasing prices of traversing either the Panama or Suez Canals.

But as much as this investigation turns out to be about following the money – tensions are so high that multiple countries are on the brink of war. It’s up to Miranda and her team, with a whole lot of help from her friends, allies and even one or two downright frenemies, to put all the pieces together before it’s too late.

Miranda Chase always delivers. Nightwatch is yet another compulsively readable chapter in her ongoing adventures! I’m already looking forward to her next investigation.

One final note, as much as I love the Miranda Chase series, it added just that little something extra that Taz’ part of the story was a bit of a love letter – or at least a bit of fannish appreciation – towards Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache series. Her part of the story isn’t just set in Gamache’s stomping grounds, but several of the characters, including Taz herself, are big fans of Gamache’s as will be many of the story’s readers. (For those like Jeremy who are not familiar with the Chief Inspector, the series begins with Still Life and it is marvelous and thoughtful and just a terrific set of beautiful mysteries. Just don’t judge the books by either its TV series or its movie.)

Review: Skibird by M.L. Buchman

Review: Skibird by M.L. BuchmanSkibird (Miranda Chase NTSB #11) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #11
Pages: 364
Published by Buchman Bookworks on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

When the political battlefield spreads to Antarctica, can the team survive the deep freeze?Those who work there call Antarctica “The Ice.” A secret Russian cargo jet crashes into a crevasse near an Australian Station. The Aussies call in the top air-crash investigators on the planet.The best of them all, Miranda Chase, must face the Russians, Chinese, and use her own autistic abilities to keep her team alive. As the battle spreads across The Ice, are even her incredible skills enough?Or will they all be buried in the frozen wasteland?"Miranda is utterly compelling!" - Booklist, starred review“Escape Rating: A. Five Stars! OMG just start with Drone and be prepared for a fantastic binge-read!” -Reading Reality

My Review:

This one begins, as the entries in this series generally do, with a plane crashing. It’s just that this particular crash is a bit more inconvenient than most. (Considering that the last crash they investigated (in Lightning) was on a remote island in the South China Sea, that’s saying something.) But this one is definitely in a much dicier location.

A Russian cargo plane has crashed near Australia’s main Antarctic base, Davis Station, on Australian territory. In a crevasse. It was supposedly carrying fuel and supplies for Russia’s extremely remote Vostok base.

But when three very disparate teams show up at Davis Station to either “investigate” the crash or prevent it from being thoroughly investigated, there are a whole lot of people who are left wondering just what was in that plane that was worth dying for – or killing for.

Miranda and her team are there because the Australian Transport Safety Bureau has recalled Holly Harper from her secondment to Miranda Chase’s NTSB team – and the Chairman of the (U.S.) Joint Chiefs of Staff has requested that Miranda and the rest of the team go with her. Miranda’s expertise is clearly going to be needed.

The Russians have sent the officer in charge of their Antarctic bases from Moscow to prevent anyone from investigating the crash or even exploring the downed plane – assuming they can. Why the Chinese Central Military Commission have sent their own agent is anyone’s guess once she adds herself to this rather eclectic expedition.

Someone, or something, brought that plane down. The Russians seem dead set on making sure that no one finds out what it was carrying or who might have destroyed it – on pain of death. The Chinese seem to be operating on the principle that if the enemy of my enemy is not exactly my friend, that they and the U.S. might have coinciding interests in whatever caused the crash and/or is causing the Russians panic over the crash.

And Miranda and her team just want to find out why this old, sturdy but reliable plane, in the hands of an extremely capable pilot, turned into such an explosive crash so very far from home. Whether they can do a damn thing about the political explosions that will inevitably follow in their wake is not even on Miranda’s radar.

But she and her team are certainly on someone’s. As always.

Escape Rating A: I love Miranda, and I adore this series, but I found myself wishing that Skibird had come out in the summer. A northern hemisphere summer, that is. Because the author does an entirely too excellent job of describing the extreme conditions under which Miranda’s team conducts their Antarctic investigation. It’s already cold enough around here that I didn’t need to experience the shivers vicariously as well. I’d have appreciated the chilly scenario a lot more in the middle of an Atlanta summer.

That being said, this was a fascinating, albeit chilly, entry in this terrific series. (The series starts with Drone, it’s a compelling adventure conducted by a great team and every entry is an edge or the seat thriller in multiple ways. If any of that appeals to you, or if you’d like to read something that reads a lot like Tom Clancy before he stopped paying attention to his editor, pick up Drone and buckle up for a wild thrill ride.)

Back to hot but nearly-frozen Skibird. I need to explain that a bit.

The stories in the Miranda Chase series often have a “ripped from the headlines” feel – sometimes because they’ve anticipated the headlines. As Miranda and her team head to Antarctica, the U.S. and Russia are in the middle of a proxy war in the former Soviet Bloc countries that may be a Cold War between the major powers but a hot war on the ground. At the same time, the U.S. is in a bit of a Trade War with China while relations between the Chinese and the Russians are fractious and on the point of fracturing.

It’s a mess, and I say that without differentiating between the book and real life.

Miranda and her team are just there to investigate the crash. Miranda’s autism requires her to focus on the job at hand and ignore any chaos that may surround it. The rest of her team are there to help her maintain that focus AND deal with that chaos – often at the same time.

The Russians are clearly up to something. The Chinese are clearly up to taking advantage of the situation between the Russians’ “something” and the Americans trying to get to the bottom of it – preferably without finding themselves at the bottom of another crevasse. The political maneuvering takes place at the highest levels as well as in the lowest of places and Miranda and her team are caught in the middle of it.

But underneath the big, exploding story of crashing planes and illicit arms imports into Antarctica, there’s also a quiet and potentially even more chilling story about the relationships on the team. Holly is panicking because she never expected to be in a relationship – only to finally realize that she is and has been for a couple of years. Miranda never expected to find the level of emotional support and happiness in her life that she has found with Andi, and is worried that the relationship is founded on smoothing out her world and not on love or romance or a partnership of equals.

In other words, both Holly and Miranda are running scared in their own particular ways, causing an even bigger chill in their worlds than the ambient Antarctic temperature.

The political brinkmanship quotient in Skibird is high, the air crash problem solving is even more fraught than usual, and the relationships on the team have never been more brittle. Skibird is a page-turning delight from beginning to end – even while bundled up in the warmest blankets.

Next up for Miranda is Nightwatch, promised for early 2023. Which is a good thing, because I can’t wait!

Review: Lightning by M.L. Buchman

Review: Lightning by M.L. BuchmanLightning (Miranda Chase NTSB #10) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #10
Pages: 388
Published by Buchman Bookworks on June 7th 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miranda Chase—the autistic heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.

Revenge? A terrorist attack? Or a declaration of war?

The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee lies dead. The murder weapon? An Air Force Learjet deliberately crashed into his DC hotel room.

Half a world away in the South China Sea, an F-35C Lightning II — America’s newest fighter jet — crashes during landing. It cripples the aircraft supercarrier USS Theodore Roosevelt. An accident? Or China’s next move toward world domination?

Miranda Chase and her NTSB air-crash investigation team are spread thin as they struggle to unravel two horrific crashes at once — and halt a global firestorm before it burns them all.

Worst of all. The next target could be Miranda herself.

My Review:

As many times as M.L. Buchman’s work, particularly the Miranda Chase series, is compared with Tom Clancy, it seems fitting that the opening of Lightning is just a bit reminiscent of Clancy’s eighth Jack Ryan book, Executive Orders. That’s the one where Ryan finds himself very unexpectedly President after a plane crashes into a joint session of Congress and wipes out pretty much everyone.

Not that the crash that opens Lightning – actually, either of the crashes – does nearly as thorough a job on the entire government as that one did. But the description of that plane circling a landmark DC hotel did give me the same kind of vibe.

While President Roy Clarke in Miranda Chase’s world has already lost his VP (that’s just a tiny piece of the story in White Top) it does resemble Executive Orders, relative to its predecessor Debt of Honor, as Lightning takes place very much in the immediate wake of the events of that previous story.

Miranda’s team has just been split. Two of the members of her core team, computer genius Jeremy Trahn and Colonel Vicki “Taz” Cortez have been seconded to the Air Force office that investigates crashes AND the headquarters of the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) in a joint assignment.

Jeremy has always been Miranda’s right-hand, the person she trusts most at a crash site to do things not just as she wants them, but just as she would do them herself. Jeremy is ready to “fly the nest” and run his own team. But Miranda misses him like a limb. She functions best when her personal world remains stable and the adjustment is difficult for her.

How much of that is her autism and how much is just that she misses Jeremy and Taz because they’re part of her found family is not something she’s able to determine. Miranda knows what makes planes tick and what makes them crash, but she has very little grasp on humans and their emotions – even her own.

Jeremy and Taz arrive in DC – with all their boxes and assorted crap – to take over the investigation of the plane crash in the heart of downtown DC that wiped out more than one luxury hotel. The initial question on the very bloody table is whether the crash was aimed at the hotel or at the regular guest whose suite it landed in – the late Senator Hunter Ransom, a thorn in the side of the current administration. But more importantly, a formerly influential Senator whose many many underhanded and/or under-the-table deals in the Middle East had just fallen through with a bang.

Meanwhile, Miranda and the rest of her team are investigating a plane crash at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage when they get “hijacked” by an order from the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to immediately fly to the site of a disastrous crash on an aircraft carrier in the South China Sea. Because as bad as the mess at Elmendorf was, it doesn’t have even the ghost of the ghost of a chance of plunging the U.S. into war with China. If the incident aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt was caused by anything other than “pilot error” the possibility of World War III opening in its wake is not inconsiderable.

Only Miranda and her team are capable of putting the very tiny pieces of the crashed plane and the circumstances surrounding it together in a way that will reliably point the finger at “whodunnit”. What the politicians will make of the situation after that isn’t remotely part of Miranda Chase’s remit – or her genius.

Escape Rating A+: The reason that Buchman’s Miranda Chase series gets compared to Tom Clancy so often is that both are stories about political brinkmanship as seen through the eyes of someone who is so damn good at their job that they frequently upset the best laid plans of the powers-that-be or wannabe by exposing either their incompetence or their triple-crossing craziness. Or both. In Mirada’s case at least, often both.

Miranda Chase is the best crash-scene investigator that the NTSB has ever produced. The laser focus that is a part of her being on the autism spectrum allows and/or forces her to keep pursuing her goal – solving the crash – until every “i” is dotted and every “t” is crossed no matter what it takes.

The team that has coalesced around her (their origin stories are all in the marvelous Start the Chase collection) are all the best at the best of what they do, whether that’s maneuver around the humans who are inevitably part of a crash scene (Mike), analyze data from every single piece of electronic equipment on the downed craft (Jeremy), provide the pilot’s perspective for helicopters (Andi) that Miranda herself has for planes, navigate the Pentagon’s darker corners (Taz) or just protect Miranda and the rest of the team from anyone who tries to get in their way (Holly). Together they are a force to be reckoned with when it comes to finding the right needle in the crumpled haystack of a crash.

The cases that meet in a headlong collision in Lightning are up to everyone’s eyeballs with political ramifications. Even the CIA Director Clarissa Reese, who hates Miranda and her team with an incandescent fire that can probably be seen from orbit, finds herself playing nice not just with Miranda but with the Chinese government who may, or may not, or may, be the architects of this series of disasters.

Watching Miranda, her team and the powerful people she has in her corner negotiate their way out of – or at least into a delay of – what seems like an inevitable war always makes for edge-of-the-seat reading – and Lightning was absolutely no exception to that rule.

I want to say this has a happy ending, but this is set in a version of the real world that is entirely too close to what is happening right now. The news doesn’t have a happy ending, and Lightning feels so ripped from the headlines that it doesn’t either.

What it does have is a sense of breathless anticipation for the next disaster. At least Miranda and her team have a chance at kicking doom down the road until the next book. And I can’t wait to see how they manage it next time!

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. Buchman

Review: Start the Chase by M.L. BuchmanStart the Chase: a Miranda Chase Origin Story Collection by M L Buchman
Format: ebook
Source: Kickstarter
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #9
Pages: 318
Published by Buchman Bookworks on October 24, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books
Goodreads

Miranda Chase’s Team—before they were one!
Before they were the hottest, and most at-risk air-crash investigation team for the NTSB and the US military, the six members of Miranda Chase’s team had each started along very unique paths.
Courtesy of backers of The Great Chase tabletop game Kickstarter, their pasts are revealed. Discover why each team member’s future turned out so differently than they planned.
Six exciting stories filled with challenges, disasters, and triumphs. Five stories with fans as guest characters. A fun and wild flight.

My Review:

I usually have a hard time getting myself stuck into short story or novella collections, but Start the Chase was definitely an exception. Just as Miranda Chase herself is an exception in so many fascinating ways.

In the middle of a week that has gone completely off the rails, I was looking for something that I could get sucked into instantly that wouldn’t let me go until the end, and the Miranda Chase series has been good for that from the very first book, Drone.

But there haven’t been any new books in the series for a few months, as the author has been busy taking care of all the good business that was generated when he got his rights back to his earliest work. Which I loved from all the way back in The Night is Mine, lo those many years ago at the beginning of Reading Reality. So if you love military romance, now is a great time to start or restart his Night Stalkers series and all the deliciously good books that followed.

Howsomever, let’s get back to Miranda Chase and her team, which is where I started. I got a notification about the tenth book in the series, Lightning, coming out in June, which reminded me that I hadn’t read the ninth book in the series, Start the Chase, even though I participated in the Kickstarter.

I needed to get lost in a book and a world that I was already familiar with, and I wanted to read Start the Chase before Lightning struck, so here we are.

The stories in Start the Chase are all origin stories. Which makes this a great place to start the series if you aren’t already part of the action.

What makes the stories special is that they show us the characters we have come to know and love at pivot points in their lives. Specifically the pivot that changed their courses into the one that eventually intersected with Miranda Chase and the rest of her team. To kick things off there’s the pivotal moment when Miranda investigated her very first plane crash on her very own.

She had to do the investigation on her own, because the crash she was investigating was also her own. On her way to her first class at the NTSB her private plane crashed in the desolate forest between Washington State and Idaho. Miranda was the pilot and the only person aboard. Her meticulous investigation of a crash that she honestly didn’t expect to be rescued from kept her sane until her rescuers surprised her and themselves by finding her alive. She learned a valuable lesson in this story, and we learned a lot about her. Not that a lot of her past hasn’t come up over the course of the series, but this particular bit of detail was something special.

For each member of the team, the story in Start the Chase is just as pivotal as Miranda’s High Passage, Holly Harper’s story, Holly Games a New Path, begins during one of Holly’s darkest moments. She has just left the Australian Special Forces after the loss of her entire team. A new friend drags her to, of all places, a gaming convention, where Holly, costumed as Captain Marvel, discovers that she still has friends both in and out of the service, and that there’s a surprising, but surprisingly interesting opportunity for her if she is willing to seize the day.

Mike’s Last Big Con is the story that comes the closest to the opening of the Miranda Chase series, as we see the secretive Mike in his last undercover job for the FBI as it all goes completely pear-shaped. Working with Miranda is going to require that the long-time conman live on the straight and narrow – a place with which he is not even remotely familiar.

All six of the stories provide insights into characters we think we know. There have been hints before, but this collection fleshes out the details of how they ended up on the path that leads to the team. For fans of the series, it gives us an up close and personal look at people we thought we knew. For those coming in, it’s a great way of seeing who they were as individuals before they jostled their way into becoming part of such a marvelous whole.

Escape Rating A: I loved this collection. I got sucked in right away and didn’t get shaken out until the end – wishing there were more. Or wishing that Lightning was here now and not next month. I’ve missed Miranda and the gang and it was fantastic to spend time with them again.

Because this collection was produced as part of a Kickstarter campaign for The Great Chase Tabletop Game that Miranda and her team play during the later books in the series, there’s an additional fascinating piece to this collection of great stories.

One of the backer levels for the Kickstarter was the opportunity for five people to get themselves written into the individual stories as secondary characters. (This is called Tuckerization after the SF author Wilson “Bob” Tucker. I only mention this because once upon a time, when I went to a LOT of SF cons, I knew Tucker a bit. I digress.)

In Miranda’s story she’s alone, that’s a huge part of the point of the story after all. But in all of the other stories the secondary character who helps push or guide Miranda’s future team member into the path that leads them there is one of these backers. All of the stories include more than a bit of real detail about those backers, along with a way for readers to support the charities of their choice. So there’s a prompt to do a bit of good in the world – which seems to need it now more than ever – along with a terrific story.

If you like political thrillers, technothrillers and/or competence porn, you absolutely cannot go wrong following Miranda Chase and her team. Lightning can’t strike my TBR pile soon enough!

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Review: Isolate by L.E. Modesitt Jr.Isolate (The Grand Illusion #1) by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, gaslamp, political thriller, steampunk
Series: Grand Illusion #1
Pages: 608
Published by Tor Books on November 16, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of The Mongrel Mage, has a brand new gaslamp political fantasy Isolate.Industrialization. Social unrest. Underground movements. Government corruption and surveillance.
Something is about to give.
Steffan Dekkard is an isolate, one of the small percentage of people who are immune to the projections of empaths. As an isolate, he has been trained as a security specialist and he and his security partner Avraal Ysella, a highly trained empath are employed by Axel Obreduur, a senior Craft Minister and the de facto political strategist of his party.
When a respected Landor Councilor dies of "heart failure" at a social event, because of his political friendship with Obreduur, Dekkard and Ysella find that not only is their employer a target, but so are they, in a covert and deadly struggle for control of the government and economy.
Steffan is about to understand that everything he believed is an illusion.

My Review:

The Grand Illusion of the series title is the illusion that the government (any government) can solve every problem and make everyone happy – all at the same time. But as the story unfolds it acknowledges that this is very definitely an illusion, that a government can possibly make nearly all of the people happy some of the time, that it can certainly make some of the people happy nearly all of the time, but that making all the people happy all the time is neither possible nor realistic.

Although good people in government can do their best to walk the tightrope, to do the best job they can for most people most of the time. If they devote their lives to it and are even willing to give those lives in order to do the most good for the most people most of the time – even in the face of those same people not recognizing that it’s being done while resenting that it isn’t being done nearly fast enough..

In other words, this is a political story, told through fascinating characters. It also reads like a story about how to potentially stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. That could just be reading the real-life present into the opening salvo in what I hope will be a long and fascinating series. But the interpretation feels right to me and your reading mileage may vary.

So Isolate examines the dirty business of politics, as seen through the eyes of someone with an intimate view of just how the sausage is made, as the saying goes, and finds himself on the inside of an attempt to make it better. Or at least tastier for considerably more people than is currently the case.

Isolate can be read as an exploration of how politics and government work as well as a continuous discussion about how they should work, but the story is wrapped around the characters and that both personalizes it and makes it easier to get swept up in the discussion right along with them. It can also be read simply as a “power corrupts” type of story and it certainly works on that level, but it’s also competence porn of the highest order and I absolutely could not put it down.

(Speaking of not being able to put this down, readers should be aware that the count of 608 pages is a serious underestimate. It’s 15,000 kindle locs. I know there’s not a direct translation from locs to number of pages, but as an example, Jade City by Fonda Lee, which is awesome, BTW, is 560 pages and 7684 kindle locs. No matter how loosely you do the math, based on my reading time Isolate is more likely 806 pages, or more, than it is 608, unless they are very large pages and the print is very, very small. It is absolutely worth reading, I loved every minute, but it will take more time than you might think it will from the page count.)

I recognize that I’m all over the map in this review. There is a lot to this book, and it’s one that made me think quite a lot as I was reading it.

As I said earlier, there were quite a few points where it felt like a story about how to stage a coup from the inside – and how to stop it. At first, I thought that those currently in power were setting up the kind of coup that nearly happened in the U.S. after the election, but it didn’t get to quite that level of skullduggery – not that there wasn’t plenty but it didn’t go quite that far in quite that direction.

But there’s also an element that the forces of “good” or at least the forces we follow and empathize with the most, are staging a coup from inside the government but outside of real power to make change. That feels kind of right, but as it’s handled in the story it’s legal and on the side of the “angels”.

While never glossing over the fact that politics is a dirty business, and even those on the side of the “angels” sometimes have to get their hands dirty – even if by proxy.

Escape Rating A+: What made this story work for me was the way that it completely embodied its political discussions and political maneuvering in its characters. There’s a lot of necessary exploration and explanation of what government can and can’t, and should and shouldn’t, do for its people, in this country that reads just enough like ours – or Britain – to feel relevant without feeling so close that it ends up being either a political treatise or a work of alternate history.

Instead, it ends up being the story of three people doing the best that they can to help their country in spite of everyone who tries to get in their way. In the process, they all rise above the place they expected to be, and that’s just the kind of story I love to sink into.

It takes a bit to get the reader firmly ensconced in this world with these characters, but once it does, it’s riveting. And it ends, not so much with triumph – although that element is there – but with the sure and certain knowledge that Steffan, Avraal and Obreduur have plenty of work left to do. They’re eager to get started, and I’m eager to read what happens next in Councilor, due in August 2022.

Review: White Top by M.L. Buchman

Review: White Top by M.L. BuchmanWhite Top (Miranda Chase NTSB #8) by M L Buchman
Format: eARC
Source: author
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: action adventure, political thriller, technothriller, thriller
Series: Miranda Chase NTSB #8
Pages: 360
Published by Buchman Bookworks on May 25, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org
Goodreads

Miranda Chase—the heroine you didn’t expect. Fighting the battles no one else could win.
The White Top helicopters of HMX-1 are known by a much more familiar name: Marine One. The S-92A, the newest helicopter in the HMX fleet, enters service after years of testing.
When their perfect safety record lies shattered across the National Mall, Miranda Chase and her team of NTSB crash investigators go in. They must discover if it was an accident, a declaration of war, or something even worse.

My Review:

I’ve always found shopping in Walmart to be generally depressing, so I don’t go there often. But the Walmart scene in this story is enough to make me swear off the place for life! Possibly you will too, when you read the literally explosive details of a helicopter crashing into a Walmart and turning the entire huge store PLUS the surrounding parking lot into a gigantic fireball.

That the helicopter that crashed is Marine Two, carrying the Vice-President, is what pushes the crash into the path of the NTSB’s pre-eminent investigator, Miranda Chase, along with her crack team of top-notch experts into the investigation.

Not that she might not have been called in anyway, come to think of it, but Miranda and her team are the only NTSB team with the security clearance to deal with the potential causes and the political fallout of an entirely too successful attempt to sabotage one of the most secure aircraft in the nation’s entire arsenal.

And all of that is exactly what I read this series for. Miranda and her team are beyond excellent in their specialties, making every single book in this series an absolute delight of competence porn. There’s something absolutely fascinating about watching a bunch of interesting people do their complex jobs at the peak of pretty much everything.

The group that has coalesced around Miranda is one of the best teams it has ever been my pleasure to read about, and I mean that in both senses of the word “best”. Because they are all so damn good at their jobs – see above paragraph about competence porn.

But they are also a delight to read about and follow along with. Each member of the team has their own place, from Holly, the former Australian Special Forces operator who serves as the team’s muscle, to Mike, the human factors specialist, to Andi, the helicopter expert – much needed for particular crash, to Jeremy, the expert in all things geek and also Miranda’s “Mini-Me”.

That last bit turns out to be an important part of the story as far as the ongoing development of the characters is concerned. It’s getting to be time for Jeremy to leave the nest. It’s up to Miranda’s team, especially that human factors specialist, to help Miranda – who does not like change at all – to realize that it’s time to give Jeremy the opportunity to learn, grow and fail as a team leader so that he can be ready to become the Investigator in Charge (IIC) of his own team.

Which intersects both well and badly with the crash of Marine Two. It’s time for Jeremy to learn to lead, but this is not the crash he can “officially” lead. Too much is at stake and too much is at risk.

That’s where the other thing I love about this series comes in. In the Miranda Chase series, that the author has managed to out-intrigue one of the masters of the political intrigue genre, Tom Clancy. Buchman does it better in this story and this series, at least in part because it feels like he has an editor he actually listens to. (That is an opinion and I have no actual knowledge, but having read Clancy let’s say that the first books were great and then they got bloated. IMHO for what that’s worth.)

The setup for this story goes all the way back to the very first book in this awesome series, Drone. And it all pays off beautifully here, as the sabotage links back to players on the international stage who are in cahoots with power brokers in the U.S.

We follow along with Miranda as she and her team figure out how it was done, and we have a ringside seat as one of the prime movers and shakers of the whole series learns just how far her thirst for power has managed to lead her away from achieving her dream of it.

Escape Rating A+: The scenes of the two opening crashes, of which the Walmart crash was the second, are gruesome in their dispassionate recital of just how terrible and terrifying the loss of life was. (There were many times more dismemberments than in the book earlier this week.)

But this series is not about the gore, it’s about how the pattern of the crash – including the gore – allows Miranda and her team to figure out what happened. The purpose of that “figuring out” in normal life is to eliminate any design or mechanical factors that are capable of happening again – so they don’t.

In this particular instance, because this is a political thriller as much as it is anything else, the purpose of figuring out what happened is about assigning blame – and if possible, taking vengeance.

Although that part is not usually Miranda’s bailiwick. Not that she occasionally doesn’t end up in the thick of it anyway. But then, Miranda goes where the clues lead her, whether anyone wants her to go there or not.

In this case, those clues lead her, her team, her mentor and her president to a few inexorable conclusions. Conclusions that will certainly factor into where this series goes next. And I am so there for wherever that turns out to be. I’m just mad that the author is making me wait until next freaking year to find out!

But at least I got to see Miranda’s team punch the lights out of her douchecanoe ex-boyfriend, not once but twice. And he got tased again. The women on Miranda’s team stick up for her, for each other, and for the team and definitely for the win!