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August 2018

Book Review: Sweet After Death

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.


Sweet After Death by Valentina Giambanco is a riveting police procedural with a fascinating look at small town life. The opening bone-chilling scene has a brutal murder that sets the stage for the rest of the novel. 

Seattle detectives Alice Madison and Kevin Brown along with crime scene investigator Amy Sorensen are sent to the town of Ludlow to help the very small police force investigate the killing of a well-respected doctor. The brutality of the cold winter weather matches the horrific way the doctor was killed. Ludlow is located a few hours from Seattle within the mountainous backdrop. But as the inquiry takes hold events seem to spiral out of the Seattle investigator’s control.  During the Memorial Service, the killer strikes again, murdering another town’s member and having the three Seattle police officers under siege. As they become targets, Madison and her team realize they must find the murderer before he or she strikes again.

The trick for the author was having the Seattle detectives travel to this small town and assist in the investigation. “I had them called in by the Police Chief for support. It was the county’s first murder and they needed their expertise. I made sure the conflict between the city and town law enforcement was superficial.  I wanted them to get along and help each other. Seattle and the surrounding areas have a perfect landscape for crime writing.  Washington State has cities, a wilderness, that are close by.  I had a huge range of options for what my characters can do.  I always think of the environment when writing a story.  For this book, I knew I wanted to have a remote isolated small town surrounded by the mountains. The actual town is a combination of Friday Harbor in Washington State and Banff, a Canadian national park town.”

The investigation leads to a survivalist, Jeb Tanner, living in the woods with his twelve children.  He has his children taking turns between the hunter and the prey with the loser locked in a hut. They are terrified of him, fearful of his wrath.  One of the youngsters, Samuel, has a compelling story that seems very similar to what Madison went through as a child. He wonders what happened to his mother and older brother and puts his faith in Madison, hoping she will help out.  The comparisons and insights with her past are some of the most interesting aspects of the plot.

The author noted, “I am fascinated by people who lead this kind of life.  They barricade themselves on their land and bring up their children in an isolated environment.  They are inaccessible to others of their own age, the Internet, and television.  I always wondered what are their hopes, dreams, and fears. I think the child Sam and Madison are related because of her own experiences. Living in the wilderness makes it very important.  Alice as a girl was kidnapped by a hunter.  He blurred hunting for animals and people, something Sam’s father does as well.  The hunter Alice had to deal with roamed the mountains and national parks to find groups of people to pursue.” 

This story involving lies and deceptions fosters an intriguing mystery.  The author uses the environment to create a creepy atmosphere that includes the mountains and forests surrounding the town.

Book Review and Interview: Mike4

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.

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Mike4  by J. R. Seeger brings to life the work of a CIA operative. Using his own experiences, he is able to tell a realistic story.  His accomplishments include, having served as platoon leader, company commander, and multiple staff assignments in the Airborne Infantry from 1981 to 1985, as well as Chief of Station, Chief of Base, and Unit Chief for the CIA from 1987 to 2004.

The fictional plot finds Sue O’ Connell deciding to follow in her parents’ footsteps and become an operative for the CIA. Her assignment is to find terrorists so that SOF assault teams can “finish” the target. Just as the author came from a military background, before joining the CIA, so has Sue. An injury forces O’Connell to leave the military and join other SOF operators training to become counterterrorism intelligence collectors. But as she continues her training, given the code name Mike4, and after joining the surveillance world, she finds her family held secrets. Beyond just the covert world of their profession, they have a history that includes both counterintelligence secrets and a 60-year old Russian vendetta. 

This riveting tale allows someone to take the journey with Sue as she goes from the CIA training at the Farm to a field operator.  Anyone wanting to understand the shadowy often hard-edged world of counter-terrorism within a mysterious plot should read this novel

EC: Russia is the adversary in your story?

JR Seeger:  The Russians’ purpose is to create sufficient chaos in the West, doing whatever they please in what they would call “the near abroad.” The Russians are taking active measures all across Europe, the UK, and the US.  The objective to have the Western world totally focused on the political chaos within their systems instead of Russian expansionism.  This geo-political perspective is very much consistent with what was going on during the Cold War in the 1950s, 1960s.The difference is they are using inexpensive yet sophisticated methods, doing it with the Internet instead of tanks.

EC:  Can you explain the quote about Russia, which is very timely today?

JRS:  You are referring to the book quote, ‘Americans believes in open-source intelligence and think tanks.  Russians understand the outside world is a created reality… and understand that the real world is a world of secrets, backroom deals, deceit, and theft.’ I wanted to explain that every Russian I ever met lived in a world where nothing could be trusted, and everything was manipulated at the Kremlin level.  Their two newspapers are described, one is supposed truth and the other is supposed news.  Yet, people would say there is no truth and no news. The complete and utter control is with the power.

EC:  When did you write the book?

JRS:  The story was written in 2013 and it takes about two years for the PRB to clear the book. The O’Connell family is a metaphor for the rest of the world. Sue thinks she knows everything that goes on within her family, but finds out all kinds of things she never knew. 

EC:  You give a shout out to amputees?

JRS:  When I did special ops training I met people who had amputations below the knee (BTK). They were previous special operators who were injured in Iraq and Afghanistan. Refusing to be victims, and wanting to stay in the game, they became human intelligence collectors.  The guys and gals I worked with did not reveal until after the fact that they were BTKs.  Just as with my character Sue, they did not want anyone to know and pity them.  They were as hard as a woodpeckers’ lips.

EC:  What is based on your experiences?

JRS:  The way the characters talked and thought is based entirely on my experiences.  The feedback of those in the game said this is how they talked and thought. I wanted to make sure this book is as realistic about this community as I know.  The people in the story are based on a compilation.

EC:  Can you explain the book quote, “Ginger Rogers had to do everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards and in high heels”?

JRS:I wanted to write something that captured women in the Special Operations Forces and intelligence communities.  I know the current CIA Director, Gina Haspel, who is a good friend of mine.  I have known her since 1991. She is a fascinating person.  All the women from Gina’s era through the present-day focus on just doing the job.  Barbara O’ Connell, the mom, showed how spectacular women did the job.  The current generation are succeeding because the previous one had courageous women who paved the way. As Sue says, once you get through selection that is it.  It does not matter your sex, sexuality, race, color, or religion, because it becomes all about performance.  If the operator holds up their part of the bargain, they are a part of the team, and if someone does not, then it is RTU, return to unit.

EC:  Can you describe Sue?

JRS:  Aggressive, independent, and sometimes a rule breaker.  She is learning how to apply her skills.  BTW: I did not physically describe any of the characters on purpose, although I put in this book quote to show her feelings, ‘To survive life in an SOF unit she always had to be tougher, faster, and smarter than the guys if she was going to get any respect.’

EC:  So did she earn her team’s respect?

JRS:  Yes. As I said earlier, she finally realized she has nothing to prove, that she earned her place.  Anyone who tried to cause trouble for her because she is a woman would be gone. I describe it as all the different parts of the military: Army red, Airforce sky blue, Navy navy blue, and Marine green become purple when blended together.  Once someone proves themselves they are just one of the purple people.

EC:  You describe case officers in the novel?

JRS:  They are good at manipulation, understanding the different cultures, and recruiting assets. 

EC:  Readers learn of an agency rule: “Everything we say is true, just not truly complete?”

JRS:  In my first tour I heard it and have expressed it ever since.  I wanted to show how Intelligence collection is an art, not a science, because human beings are involved.  Operators had to find out what is in the assets head and if they will obey instructions.  Not everything we knew is told to headquarters because it is impossible to express everything known on paper.  But the direct boss is told everything. 

EC:  What do you want readers to get out of the story?

JRS:  First and foremost, wounded warriors should not be framed as victims.  There are a lot of people still in the fight that have catastrophic injuries and chose not to be pitied.  They just get fixed and go back into the fight.  The second point, special operators are right now in at least fifty countries.  Americans need to understand the personal cost of a very small group of men and women. They are in combat 120 to 180 days, home for 30, back in training for 30, and then returned to combat.  The vast majority of Americans today do not even realize we are still fighting Al Qaeda because less than 1% know someone in the fight. 

EC:  Can you give a heads up about your next books?

JRS:This book,MIKE4, begins a tale of the O’Connell family that will continue this fall with Friend or Foeand once cleared by the PRB will continue with The Executioner’s Blade.  The prequel for the story will be O’Connell’s Treasurewhich will remain inside the boundaries of 1943-1946 so that the PRB review is not required. I would very much like to continue the story of Peter O’Connell the elder with Rough Diamondsand even write about Sue O’Connell’s parents’ operation.


Book Review: One on One

The following review is a special for BlackFive readers provided by Elise Cooper. You can read all of our book reviews and author interviews by clicking on the Books category link in the right side bar.

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One on One by Michael Brandman is the second installment in the new series.  The former original writer of the Jesse Stone series after Robert Parker’s death, decided last year to write a series about a small-town police deputy. Besides a good mystery the author intertwines some social issues as well as an ongoing discussion about assisted suicide.

Legendary Sheriff Burton Steel requested his son Buddy leave his job with LAPD Homicide and come home to become the deputy of Freedom, California, a privileged coastal community a hundred miles north of Los Angeles. Reluctantly, he honored the summons because of a sense of duty, and a willingness to make amends with his dying father. Burton Steel has Lou Gehrig’s disease, and has pressured his son to pull the plug when necessary in an assisted suicide.

Brandman noted, “I knew someone who pulled the plug on himself.  The guy was a physician and worked out a morphine overdose.  His future was so dim he did not want to experience the pain.  I wanted to explore in this series the issues of the father/son dynamic as well as what happens when someone faces mortality.  Burton is not afraid to tell Buddy he will one day ask him to pull the plug. Although Buddy is horrified it is a topic I wanted to delve into, the taking of a life versus ending a loved one’s suffering.”

Thankfully, for Buddy he becomes distracted while investigating a fatality.  A popular assistant principal, Hank Carson, who is also the assistant swimming coach, is brutally murdered with a steak knife. Further scrutiny reveals that there was another side to Carson. There are people who resent him and are suspicious that he and some football players could be involved in abuse of those on the swim team.

Readers will obviously be reminded of the Penn State football scandal along with Michigan State’s gymnastic scandal, both involving sexual abuse. “I wanted to write how a murder could have happened out of these stories of abuse. This violation of a sacred trust had people looking the other way. I like to explore some societal issues.  In my first book, Missing Persons, I explored how some preachers are con men that emerged as self-righteous. In this novel, I wanted to show how abuse can impact a victim and what is their recourse. In my next book, Buddy takes on the developers and Coastal Commission after a murder takes place.”

The sub-plot of the book has Buddy angry over a sudden outbreak of graffiti. He is forced to find new and challenging ways to thwart those responsible for defacing buildings with their so called “street art.” The author wants “to call attention to this blight and have Buddy find a way to end it.  I am tired of driving around Los Angeles seeing this horrifying graffiti. I put in a quote in the book to show these ‘artists’ will do it anywhere and do not care if it is public or private property.”

Buddy is a likeable character who uses self-deprecating humor, sometimes acting like an overgrown schoolboy. He is easygoing and can handle people poking fun at him. Being smart, caring, and understanding of people’s emotional pain, Buddy has a moral sense of right versus wrong.

Readers will enjoy this fast-paced mystery.  With well-developed characters and a plot that takes issues straight from the headlines, this is a good read.