The Real Book Spy’s March 2018 Reading Guide

Welcome to March, thriller fans — one of the best months for big-name authors and hot debuts. . . there are a ton of great books coming out over the next four weeks! 

For the most part, picking the strongest month of the year for new releases may change from reader to reader based on which authors and what type of books you like best. Personally, I think March and July are pretty much tied, with some of the genre’s heaviest hitters (Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, Ben Coes, Karin Slaughter, and Ace Atkins) set to release new books this summer. 

So while readers may differ on which month is stronger, overall, one thing most will agree on is that March 6th is the best single pub day of the year.

Consider this: Jack Carr (one of the year’s best debut authors), Brad Meltzer, Joel C. Rosenberg, Phillip Margolin, Brad Parks, Linda Howard, Lars Kepler, Tess Sharpe (who makes her adult thriller debut after previously penning YA books), Alma Katsu, and Ben Sanders are all releasing new books on the same day. That is a ton of firepower, and will no doubt make for a competitive showdown when The New York Times releases their bestsellers list. 

To go with the authors mentioned above, there are also new books coming from Clive Cussler, Randy Wayne White, C.J. Box, Steve Berry, J. Todd Scott, and David Hagberg

As always, I’ve picked a couple of Featured Selections to highlight. This month, those books are Joel C. Rosenberg’s The Kremlin Conspiracy and C.J. Box’s The Disappeared. 

Rosenberg is one of the best in the business at beating headlines and seeing his stories come to life. After three different series focusing on the Middle East, Rosenberg now switches his focus to Russia by kicking off an all-new series starring a former U.S. secret service agent. It’s timely, gripping, and classic Joel Rosenberg. Expect to be up all night with this one — The Kremlin Conspiracy is excellent! 

My other pick happens to be one of my all-time favorite authors. While Vince would get my vote as this generation’s best political thriller novelist, I personally think C.J. Box is the best crime writer working today. I’ve read him longer than any other author, and am truly amazed that he keeps finding ways to get better and better each time out. His Joe Pickett series is phenomenal, and The Disappeared will suck you in and hold your attention until the nail-biting finale. 

Book Club 

In case you missed the initial announcement, The Real Book Spy Online Book Club kicks off this month with Jack Carr’s The Terminal List.

The book comes out on March 6th, and those who want to participate in the reading club should run out and buy it (or stay in and order it here) as fast as possible because on Monday, March 19th, Jack Carr and I will be hosting a Facebook live session to discuss the book with readers. I’ll interview Jack, and then we’ll do a Q&A session. Plus, we have a few surprises, including a fun giveaway where Jack has agreed to pick a winner on-air, then sign and personalize a book to them on camera — which we’ll send out right away.

It’s going to be a lot of fun, and I hope you’ll all join us on Facebook live on the 19th. See you then!

Tuesday, March 6th

The Terminal List by Jack Carr (Book Club Selection)

A potential new star of the genre emerges in Jack Carr’s debut thriller, which introduces a lethal protagonist in the same vein as other iconic literary heroes such as Mitch Rapp and Scot Harvath.

While carrying out a high-stakes mission near the Khost Province in Afghanistan, Navy SEAL Commander James Reece and his men inadvertently walk straight into an ambush, and only Reece survives.

Following the carnage, Reece reflects on the orders that came down the pipe, forcing him and his men into a situation they had little time to prepare for. Noting that he never felt right about the mission from the very beginning, Reece starts asking questions upon returning to Bagram Air Base. Though his initial efforts are stonewalled, Reece–whose never-quit attitude helped shape him into one of the top operators in America’s arsenal of super soldiers–doesn’t give up. Continuing to probe for answers, Reece is given some disturbing personal news that, astonishingly, he then discovers is something the other men on his SEAL team all had in common.

Sent home to Coronado, California, Reece plans to race off to see his wife, Lauren, and their young daughter, Lucy. Instead, he’s delayed and forced to answer additional questions and see a military doctor before he’s allowed to take off. By the time he finally pulls his Toyota Land Cruiser into his driveway, Reece is horrified to find his house crawling with police officers. Inside, his family lays slain in their living room, their bodies riddled with bullet holes.

It doesn’t take long for Reece to realize that his getting closer to the truth about what happened to him and his men in Afghanistan caused the deaths of his loved ones. The enemy, by taking away everyone he loved, sent Reece a painful message. At the same time, they just took away the only thing keeping his anger and brutality in check. . . a move they’ll soon regret.

With nothing left to live for, James Reece chases the conspiracy unfolding before him, which reaches all the way to the very top of the United States government. Carefully crafting a list of everyone involved, Reece then sets out to do the one thing he’s exceptionally good at. . . kill everyone who played even a minor role in the deaths of his men and his family.

The government spent a lot of time and money turning Reece into a killing machine for his country. Now he’s coming after them.

There have been some really promising new heroes introduced to readers over the past several years, but few have the potential moving forward that Carr’s protagonist radiates from the onset of this exceptional story. On top of the daring, well-written plot, Carr packs in a ton of tradecraft to go hand-in-hand with his above-average character development. Readers will enjoy learning a few tricks of the trade, and the action–though one scene in particular is especially gruesome–is on point.

Jack Carr proves to be a formidable new voice in the political thriller genre, making a bold statement with his lightning-quick debut novel. The Terminal List is a can’t-miss, must-read, relentless action thriller that reads like a cross between Vince Flynn’s Term Limits and Mark Greaney’s Back Blast.

Book Details

Author: Jack Carr
Series: James Reece #1
Pages: 416 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1501180819
Publisher: Atria/Emily Bestler Books
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 8.0/10


The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

Who is Nola Brown? 

That’s the question readers will ask themselves as Brad Meltzer’s latest high-octane thriller, The Escape Artist, kicks off.

Officially, Nola Brown is dead. Her body was found among others after a devastating plane crash. Her commanding officer confirms Nola’s death, as does the United States government. So, too, does Jim Zigarowski’s boss, who signed off, triple-checking that the body arriving at Dover Air Force Base was, in fact, that of Nola Brown.

There’s just one problem.

Nola Brown isn’t dead. . .

Zigarowski, who goes by “Zig,” the Port Mortuary Branch Chief at Dover, spends each day with fallen troops. His job goes far beyond conducting autopsies. The bodies that arrive at Dover often need delicate care in order to be pieced back together.  When parents, spouses, and children come to claim the remains of their beloved soldiers, they often want to see the body. And it’s Zig’s job to make sure the fallen look the way people remember them so that their families can have the proper closure they need.

Closure — it’s an important part of the grieving process, something Zig knows all too well.

So when bodies come in missing limbs, Zig works his magic, sculpting new ones out of clay. When their faces are ripped apart by shrapnel or burned beyond recognition, Zig applies makeup to make them look like their old selves. It’s a job he does with love, and something he takes very seriously. When it comes to restoring broken, ripped-apart flesh, there’s nobody better than Jim Zigarowski. In fact, it seems as though Zig is able to restore everyone. . .  but himself.

Deep down, Zig is a broken man, having never recovered from the day his daughter, Maggie, his only child, tragically passed away.

What begins as an ordinary day quickly turns into anything but. Zig purposely signed up to work on Nola’s body. When her name first appeared on the list of victims from the plane crash, he recognized it immediately. Checking to make sure it was the same Nola he knew from nearly fifteen years ago was simple. Zig has plenty of security access, and for those rare times his clearance level isn’t high enough, well, he’s got friends in high places with enough juice to get the info he needs. Including this time, when he confirmed that this Nola Brown is the same Nola Brown from his hometown. . . the same Nola who once bravely, selflessly, did something for Maggie that Zig would never forget.

But as he gets to work repairing the body, Zig quickly realizes it’s not Nola. It can’t be. He’s able to confirm as such by running the deceased’s fingerprints. But why, he wonders, would someone try to pawn this body off as Nola Brown?

Surely, it couldn’t be an accident. The triple-check system is in place for this very reason. Someone–several people, actually–had to sign off on the soldier’s identification. Determined to get answers, Zig starts poking around. Going back to the body, he finds a chilling secret message intended for Nola, confirming that she is, indeed, out there. . . and that she’s in serious danger.

Putting his life on the line, Zig decides to risk everything in order to try and find Nola so he can deliver the hidden message before it’s too late. But his search raises more questions than answers, especially when he finds out that the plane Nola supposedly died on took off from a secret military base in Alaska. As he presses on, Zig eventually discovers a centuries-old conspiracy that can be traced all the way back to the world’s most famous escape artist of all time: Harry Houdini.

Meltzer has a gift for turning average Joes into unlikely heroes. He’s done it throughout his career, most notably with his Beecher White series (which by the way, seems to be set in the same universe as Zig and Nola–Meltzer’s fans will recognize a cameo from a certain president) and 2016’s The House of Secrets. There’s also nobody better when it comes to mixing in historical facts with nail-biting fiction.

Zig, like so many of us, is just an average guy who cares about his job and walks around with a big hole in his heart. He’s vulnerable, honest, and cares about doing the right thing, almost to a fault. He feels like he owes Nola, and that drives him onward. He’s wonderfully developed, and Meltzer portrays him in a way that makes Zig relatable, real, and compelling. But even so, Nola is the star here, and trust me, the less you know about her heading into this one the better.

In fact, all you really need to know is this: Nola Brown is Meltzer’s strongest female character yet, and when it’s all said and done, she’ll stand among the year’s best new characters. Period.

While he’s done it all–from penning New York Times bestsellers to hosting multiple hit television shows–Meltzer hasn’t ever written anything quite like his latest book. The Escape Artist is thrilling, yet full of soul. It’ll entertain you, and teach you. It’ll have you cheering, but it’ll also grip you emotionally. When you’re on the brink of tears, Meltzer makes you laugh. Toss in nonstop suspense, blind-siding twists and turns, a fascinating conspiracy, plenty of action. . . and you’ve got a story unlike anything else currently sitting on bookstore shelves, and a story that only Brad Meltzer could tell.

So, who is Nola Brown?

Find out on March 6th when Brad Meltzer’s must-read new novel, The Escape Artist, hits bookstores everywhere.

Book Details

Author: Brad Meltzer
Series: Nola Brown #1
Pages: 434 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1455559520
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 9.0/10


The Kremlin Conspiracy by Joel C. Rosenberg (Featured Selection)

Rosenberg’s latest thriller opens in 1999. A young Russian lawyer named Oleg Kraskin plans to ask the father of his longtime girlfriend, Marina, for his permission to propose to his daughter.

There’s just one problem. . .

Marina’s father is Aleksander Luganov, the former head of the Russian Federal Security Service, current prime minister, and the man chosen to be the next president of Russia.

Jumping forward a few years, twenty-one-year-old Marcus Ryker, a student at the University of Northern Colorado, finds himself in jail — put there for defending his mother against an abusive man who’d beaten her on more than one occasion. Having acted in self-defense, Marcus eventually walks free, but the sobering moment alters the trajectory of his life forever. After graduation, Marcus abandons his original plans and joins the Marines, something he hadn’t previously considered.

Though a world apart, Rosenberg masterfully develops both Marcus and Oleg, skillfully detailing their backgrounds and careers.

Russian President Luganov granted Oleg’s request, hosted a great wedding for his daughter and new son-in-law, and then welcomed Oleg into the family business by making him an aid in the Kremlin. Marcus, meanwhile, who experienced war first-hand on the battlefields in Afghanistan, got out of the military, married a beautiful woman, started a family, and then joined the United States Secret Service.  Oleg, too, had a child and similarly climbed the career ladder. Eventually, both men find themselves at the peak of their professions. Marcus is on the president’s security detail, while Oleg (after proving his loyalty) is promoted to senior aid, working directly under his powerful father-in-law.

As readers follow both characters, Rosenberg slowly reveals an evil force lurking behind the scenes. Realizing the time to strike is now, while the American president is distracted by the events unfolding in Iran and North Korea, a czar rising within the Kremlin develops a plan to invade several NATO countries just ahead of October 25th, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution — a move that could trigger a major war with the United States.

Suddenly, the lives of Marcus and Oleg, two men on opposites sides of a dangerous conflict, collide in full force as Rosenberg cranks up the suspense, delivering his most stunning, high-stakes thriller yet.

Called a “modern-day Nostradamus” by U.S. News & World Report after his first novel, The Last Jihad, came out in 2002, Rosenberg has been known to write headline-beating thrillers. After writing a five-book series and two back-to-back trilogies about the threat of radical Islamic terrorism, Rosenberg has shifted his attention to Russia.

“Moscow was once known as the seat of the ‘Evil Empire’ and I believe it is once again emerging as the center of the most dangerous government on the planet. Remember, Iran, al Qaeda, and ISIS just dream of having nuclear weapons. Moscow not only has them but also has the long-range ballistic missiles to hit every city in NATO and the United States. If they reemerge not simply as a geopolitical challenge but an aggressive enemy, the world will be headed down a very dark road.”

“I needed a new challenge and wanted to focus on a different part of the world, different enemies. In this case, I kept finding myself drawn to Russia,” Rosenberg told The Real Book Spy back in July of 2017.

Aspiring authors should take note of Rosenberg’s deftly plotted story and first-rate character development — he puts on a clinic for how to introduce and bring along new characters. Some readers, especially early on, may find the plot moving a tad slower than his past books, but that’s clearly by design. Rosenberg meticulously builds the necessary foundation for later on, and, when you least expect it, he yanks the rug out from underneath you. This is Joel C. Rosenberg at his absolute best, proving yet again that he’s one of the premier novelists working in the genre today.

With his knack for writing prophetic fiction, those who want an early glimpse at what the world might look like in the very near future should pick up Joel Rosenberg’s latest thriller. . . Strap in and hold on tight, The Kremlin Conspiracy is a high-octane thriller that will stun readers and stay with them long after they turn the final page.

Book Details

Author: Joel C. Rosenberg
Series: Marcus Ryker #1
Pages: 480 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1496406176
Publisher: Tyndale House Publishers
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 8.5/10


The Third Victim by Phillip Margolin

Robin Lockwood, a young new criminal defense attorney, agrees to take a job with an Oregon-based law firm just in time to catch a major case in New York Times bestselling author Phillip Margolin’s (Violent Crimes, etc.) new standalone novel, The Third Victim.

Two prostitutes were murdered, and a third escaped. Meredith Fenner, like her two friends, was tortured, raped, and held in captivity. Yet she managed to escape and goes to the police, before leading them back to the cabin she was held in.

It turns out that the cabin is owned by Alex Mason, an arrogant attorney who has a reputation for being rude and difficult. As detectives build a case against him, they find Mason’s DNA at the crime scene, and his younger wife confirms to the police that Alex has a kinky, slightly perverted sexual appetite. When pressed for details, Alex’s wife, Allison, shares some of his favorite moves from his playbook — which happen to line up perfectly with things Meredith Fenner claims were done to her. It all seems to add up, but Mason is adamant he’s innocent and hires bigshot defense attorney Regina Barrister, known as “The Sorceress” for her unmatched ability to get her clients off the hook. 

While Alex Mason feels good about his odds now that Regina is on the payroll and has agreed to represent him, what he doesn’t know is that the iconic lawyer has a secret of her own, one that the newly hired former MMA fighter turned attorney, Robin Lockwood, picks up on. Though she’s smart and has good instincts, not to mention a fighter’s determination to keep punching, Lockwood is a courtroom neophyte, and a case of this magnitude is something she’s nowhere close to being ready to handle on her own.

As things get underway and Regina begins to mount her defense, she’s plagued by memory lapses and other cognitive issues, which she’s unwilling to discuss or acknowledge. That leaves Robin scrambling to help, which she does by trying to connect Meredith Fenner’s case to past sexual abuse and assault cases. That line of questioning leads her to a dirty cop named Arnold Prater, who checks out as a plausible suspect until Regina pulls rank and orders Robin to stop walking down that rabbit hole.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Robin must figure out what, exactly, is going on with her boss, and why she won’t pursue another suspect who, if proven to be the actual murderer, would result in their client going free. Things ramp up as the story unfolds, and questions are eventually answered — though most readers will see them coming.

While there’s a lot of misdirection and side plots, sadly, it amounts to very little payoff. A good chunk of the book, overall, feels like filler, and Margolin’s latest effort does deserve to be knocked for that.

However, there’s a lot of good, too. While the tension never quite reaches the levels teased early on, the book charges ahead thanks to a juicy premise. As one of the nation’s top attorneys, known for her quick wits, sharp cross-examination, and steel-trap-like mind, suddenly begins to show cracks in her previously indestructible armor, which she conceals from her clients and everyone in the courtroom. Suddenly, the burden falls to an intriguing new character, who must weigh her moral compass against her desire to become a successful lawyer.

That is the part of The Third Victim that works very well, and while readers may wish that was the angle Phillip Margolin focused on the whole time, there’s enough attention there to attract both crime readers and fans of legal thrillers.

Book Details

Author: Phillip Margolin
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 125011750X
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 6.0/10


Closer Than You Know by Brad Parks

Brad Parks explores every parent’s worst nightmare in his latest nail-biting thriller, Closer Than You Know.

Melanie Barrick was late getting out of work again, which meant she again had to carefully speed down the streets of a quiet Virginia suburb to get to her daycare lady’s house before the ridiculously enforced pick-up time passed. She’d been late several times before, and any more strikes would mean that she would have to find a new daycare for her sweet, three-month-old son, Alex — a headache she badly wanted to avoid.

This time, though, when Melaine arrives, she finds the house locked up and quiet. She bangs on the door and is told that police took her baby, but isn’t given an explanation as to why. She wonders if the daycare lady actually called the cops on her because she was late, and tries her best not to lose her head as she drives to the police station. Things get worse when she’s told that Augusta County Sheriff’s Office found almost a kilo of cocaine in the Barricks’ home, stashed in Alex’s nursery, and turned her child over to social services.

In a matter of minutes, Melanie’s world swirls out of control. She swears her innocence and, in a haze of anger and confusion, assaults a police officer, landing herself in jail.

Deputy commonwealth attorney Amy Kaye had been working a case involving a serial rapist when she’s pulled off that to build a case against Melanie, whom0 the media has nicknamed “Coke Mom” in light of the allegations against her. On her to-do list is proving that Melaine intended to distribute the cocaine, a task she knocks out quickly as she works to prove herself to her boss, Aaron Dansby, who has much higher political aspirations than simply occupying his current office. Shooting for the moon, Kaye begins trying to link the murder of a man Melaine met just once to Coke Mom in an effort to put her away for life.

Readers will sympathize with Melaine, who was abused as a child and bounced around foster homes before landing on her feet as a hard-working adult. After finally getting her life together, and doing everything within her power to make sure that Alex will grow up in a safe home surrounded by loving parents, both things she never had, her universe comes crashing down all around her. Parks develops her nicely as he slowly pulls back the curtain on a conspiracy at work behind the scenes, which eventually ties all the storylines together in an entertaining, though slightly improbable, way.

As Melaine desperately tries to prove her innocence in order to get her son back, Brad Parks dials up the heat and throws nonstop twists and turns at readers, who’ll no doubt race through the pages to find out what happens. What makes the story so chilling is that, at times, it reads like the kind of thing that could happen to any of us. As a parent, there’s nothing scarier, and Parks uses that reality to tug at heartstrings and play with your emotions. It’s another winning formula for the underrated author, who continues to build on the success of last year’s hit thriller, Say Nothing.

Brad Parks brought his A-game. . . clear your schedule and strap in — once you start, there’s no stopping until the very end.

Book Details

Author: Brad Parks
Pages: 416 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1101985623
Publisher: Dutton
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 8.0/10


The Woman Left Behind by Linda Howard

“Jina Modell works in Communications for a paramilitary organization, and she really likes it. She likes the money, she likes the coolness factor—and it was very cool, even for Washington, DC. She liked being able to kick terrorist butts without ever leaving the climate-controlled comfort of the control room.

“But when Jina displays a really high aptitude for spatial awareness and action, she’s reassigned to work as an on-site drone operator in the field with one of the GO-teams, an elite paramilitary unit. The only problem is she isn’t particularly athletic, to put it mildly, and in order to be fit for the field, she has to learn how to run and swim for miles, jump out of a plane, shoot a gun…or else be out of a job.

“Team leader Levi, call sign Ace, doesn’t have much confidence in Jina–who he dubbed Babe as soon as he heard her raspy, sexy voice–making it through the rigors of training. The last thing he needs is some tech geek holding them back from completing a dangerous, covert operation. In the following months, however, no one is more surprised than he when Babe, who hates to sweat, begins to thrive in her new environment, displaying a grit and courage that wins her the admiration of her hardened, battle-worn teammates. What’s even more surprising is that the usually very disciplined GO-team leader can’t stop thinking about kissing her smart, stubborn mouth…or the building chemistry and tension between them.

“Meanwhile, a powerful Congresswoman is working behind the scenes to destroy the GO-teams, and a trap is set to ambush Levi’s squad in Syria. While the rest of the operatives set off on their mission, Jina remains at the base to control the surveillance drone, when the base is suddenly attacked with explosives. Thought dead by her comrades, Jina escapes to the desert where brutally tested beyond measure, she has to figure out how to stay undetected by the enemy and make it to her crew in time before they’re exfiltrated out of the country.

“But Levi never leaves a soldier behind, especially the brave woman he’s fallen for. He’s bringing back the woman they left behind, dead or alive.”

Book Details

Author: Linda Howard
Pages: 368 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0062419013
Publisher: William Morrow
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 7.5/10


The Sandman by Lars Kepler

Lars Kepler brings back Det. Insp. Joona Linna (this is the fourth book the series, but the first published in the U.S. by Knopf) and introduces readers to a memorable, terrifying villain in The Sandman.

For thirteen years, Jurek Walter has lived in a tiny cell in a secure psychiatric ward just outside of Stockholm after being convicted of murder. Over the years, Jurek has claimed more than twenty victims, including a young boy named Mikael Kobler-Frost.

For his sins, Jurek — whose case has been kept out of the media — has been sentenced to total isolation for the rest of his life. And then the unthinkable happens. . . on a cold winter night, a young man is found walking on train tracks wearing blood-soaked clothing. Upon being taken to the hospital, it’s revealed the young man is actually Mikael, who escaped captivity after being held by a man he calls the Sandman.

Joona Linna, the detective who put Jurek away, always believed the killer had an accomplice, but couldn’t prove it. Now, feeling vindicated, he sets his sights on the Sandman — who Mikael claims still has his sister. But to get to him, they need to get information out of Jurek, a man so evil and skilled with the tongue that his in-house doctors wear earplugs when interacting with him just to keep the killer out of their heads.

Because of their prior history, Linna cannot approach Jurek himself, so he hatches a plan to send genius twenty-seven-year-old Inspector Saga Bauer undercover as a patient in the same psychiatric ward where Jurek is imprisoned, in hopes that she can get close enough to the psychopath to get him to talk about the Sandman. It’s a risky proposition, which could result in significant harm to Bauer, who agrees to take on Jurek but quickly learns that the man is far more terrifying than she thought.

Knowing that there are other victims’ lives at stake means the clock is running, and Joona Linna doesn’t have much time to figure out how Jurek is communicating with an accomplice on the outside. . . and who that person is.

Lars Kepler is a pen name for the Swedish husband-and-wife writing team of Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril. Combining their writing styles to create a unique voice as Kepler, the couple has sold more than 11 million copies of their books around the world. Surprisingly, though, they haven’t yet taken off in the U.S., where previous versions of their books struggled to sell.

Through a long process that included getting a new translator to pen their work into English, the Ahndorils (Kepler) sold rights to Knopf (previously, their work here in America was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux), who has had great success publishing other Scandinavian thriller authors such as Stieg Larsson (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Jo Nesbo (The Thirst).

And Knopf isn’t just betting big on Kepler, they’re all in, having bought up the rights to publish three backlisted titles and two future books in the U.S. moving forward. There are also film and movie projects in the works, and Knopf is sending the Ahndorils on an impressive ten-city tour this March to help launch The Sandman.

In a note to reviewers and critics that went out as part of a media kit with advance copies of the book, Sonny Mehta, chairman and editor-in-chief of Knopf Doubleday publishing group, says that The Sandman is a “fast-paced thriller with a terrifying villain that will keep you in its grips until the final pages.” New York Times bestselling author Lee Child calls the novel “sensational,” and says it’s “like meeting Hannibal Lecter all over again.”

Both men are right on the money, except I would add that Jurek Walter, Kepler’s antagonist, would scare the living hell out of Hannibal the Cannibal himself. Nothing about the plot is really that different from other similar stories, except that Jurek might be the most cunning, maniacal, and superbly written villain to terrify this generation of readers.

It’s easy to see why characters take precautions around Jurek because just reading his scenes is unlike anything else I’ve experienced from a novel. It really does almost feel like the sadistic killer jumps inside your own head as you flip the pages. This book will screw with your mind hard, and it’s absolutely horrifying. . . yet strangely tantalizing at the same time.

If you have any fingernails left upon completion of this book, you deserve an award. . . Lars Kepler’s The Sandman is Nordic noir at its absolute finest, and a haunting, riveting story that will stay with readers for quite some time.

Book Details

Author: Lars Kepler
Series: Joona Linna #4
Pages: 464 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1524732249
Publisher: Knopf
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 8.5/10


Barbed Wire Heart by Tess Sharpe 

YA author Tess Sharpe explodes on the thriller scene with Barbed Wire Heart, a hard-boiled, gritty crime novel set in  California.

Duke McKenna is the drug king of northern Cali, ruling a vast empire that he’s built from the ground up — cheating, stealing, and killing his way to the top. Meth has made him big money and given him lots of power, but it’s come at a cost. Years back, the Springfields, the McKennas’ rivals, took out the first lady of the McKenna empire in a meth lab explosion, leaving Duke alone to raise Harley, their only child.

Now Harley is twenty-two and the heir to her father’s throne. She is, after all, what he made her — which is a hardened criminal. Whereas other kids grow up doing normal things and activities with their parents, Harley grew up learning the best ways to torture people who threaten their family and business and how to handle herself. She’s shot people before and seen her father kill men. She lost her innocence at a young age, but managed to hide just enough of it away that she’s not completely sold on taking over for her father when his time as kingpin is done.

When the Springfields roll back into town, a turf war quickly breaks out, and Duke’s enemies know that his one weakness is Harley, which puts a big target on her back.

Forced to confront her past actions and her future, Harley decides to stop blaming her father for who and what she is for the first time. Realizing that she has a choice is only half the battle, though. Having the courage to make the right choice is the really hard part. But when Harley does make that decision, there’s no going back, and she launches a secret plan to bring down the Springfields. . . and her father’s empire, once and for all.

Right out of the gate, Tess Sharpe proves that she can punch with the best of them. After some early head-hopping (multiple POV shifts that get a tad confusing), Sharpe settles in and delivers a powerful story about a young woman who has every reason to do wrong but makes the more difficult choice to ultimately try and do what’s right.

The subject matter and world the characters live in are very dark, and it’s Sharpe’s ability to bring raw emotions to life that makes this story work. Harley isn’t an antihero, but she’s not exactly likable in the beginning, either. Essentially, Sharpe’s setup is predicated on her finding ways to endear Harley to readers, which she pulls off as the story unfolds, developing her strong protagonist through a series of childhood flashbacks that paints a striking and vivid picture of Harley’s violent childhood.

Fast-paced and well-written, Barbed Wire Heart packs a surprise message wrapped in a gritty, violent plot that fans of Don Winslow and Meg Gardiner will enjoy. Tess Sharpe is the real deal, and her first adult thriller is an absolute knockout.

Book Details

Author: Tess Sharpe
Pages: 416 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1538744090
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 7.5/10


The Hunger by Alma Katsu

History tells us that the Donner Party was a group of American pioneers who set out in the late 1840s to reach California, a journey that should have taken no longer than six months, only to be met with a series of mishaps and pitfalls — with many turning to cannibalism as a way to survive.

But in The Hunger, Alma Katsu tells a different story. . . one with a supernatural twist that paints an entirely new picture.

Katsu opens with a prologue. In early 1847, a team desperately searched for Lewis Keseberg in hopes of rescuing the lone survivor of the hellish expedition. What they find instead is something truly horrific, and the story goes back to June of 1846, when George Donner first began leading the wagon train west, to tell things from the very beginning.

Not far into their journey, Donner and his family find hundreds of letters kept under rocks. Upon reading them, they find each letter warning those traveling west to turn around before it’s too late. Warnings of danger are displayed about, but the group decides to press on anyway. Multiple families, men, women, and children all hope for a better life out west, and prepare themselves for the rough voyage ahead. Sadly, things take a tragic turn, as people start to go missing, thinning the group one by one.

Katsu adds suspense by delving into her characters’ backgrounds. It turns out that some individuals are fleeing west to escape sins from back east. As these revelations come to light, group members obviously suspect them to be behind the evilness stalking them as they travel through deserts and over mountains. But the real panic sets in when missing bodies start turning up, their corpses mutilated and cleaned of flesh.

Anyone who knows even minor details about the Donner Party’s real story likely knows how things end. The surprises then, revolve around why things go so wrong, and who. . . or what. . . is behind it all.

Alma Katsu mixes horror and supernatural elements into this historical fiction thriller that packs a gruesome, violent punch. The writing is good, and the story, because it reimagines the historic event as a whole, is unique. That said, once the main twists reveal themselves, the story becomes pretty linear, and most readers will predict the ending. It’s still an enjoyable read if you’re looking for a terrifying take on a dark part of American history.

Book Details

Author: Alma Katsu
Pages: 384 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0735212511
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 6.5/10


The Stakes by Ben Sanders

Miles Keller gives a whole new meaning to the words ‘robbery detective’ in New Zealand author Ben Sanders’ latest novel, The Stakes.

Miles Keller is a dirty cop. A veteran detective of the NYPD’s robbery division, Keller is currently on suspension while being investigated for a shooting. Previously, he shot and killed a hitman named Jack Dean, who had gone after Keller’s ex-girlfriend, Lucy Gates, who was also one of his informants. In Keller’s mind, Jack Dean was a scumbag, and while the shooting might not be justified by department standards, he justified it by telling himself that any time you can rid the earth of a scumbag, it’s a good day.

Therein lies the conundrum for Keller and for readers. Sanders’ protagonist might be a cop, but that is essentially the only thing separating him from the criminals he goes after.

Living by the logic that “big money often means big risks,” Keller targets the city’s biggest criminals, ripping them off to pad his own coffer. When readers first meet him, he’s planning to steal from a wealthy attorney who gets paid in cash by shady clients to be their go-between. The take, well over two hundred thousand dollars, means he needs some backup — and he brings on a hardened felon to lend a hand.

While the story starts off straight-forward and easy to follow, Sanders switches things up by introducing Bobby Dean, Jack’s cousin, who is also a hitman, but out of California. Dean is on the payroll of a Los Angeles-based gangster, who sends him to New York to locate Nina Stone. It turns out that Stone, who is back in NYC for the first time in half a decade, has a history with Keller, stemming from an investigation into a bank robbery five years ago. For reasons he’s still unsure of himself, Keller looked the other way and let Stone skate. Now she’s back, complicating matters for him.

With several big scores under his belt, Keller is ready to get off the grid before the shooting investigation is complete. He’s worked too hard to rip off dangerous criminals just to live out his days in a prison cell, but before he can go to ground, Stone asks for his help with one last job — a major heist with a take big enough for them to both disappear forever.

To pull it off, Keller will need to stay one step ahead of his colleagues and bosses in the NYPD and dodge Dean, the vicious hitman who has an ax to grind with him. That’s all on top of planning and executing the job Stone has in mind. There are big risks for sure, but then again, there always are when big money is in play. . .

For being from New Zealand, Ben Sanders does a nice job of mostly getting the American setting right. The book mostly takes place in New York City, with other parts occurring in California. There aren’t any glaring inaccuracies (there are some minor things) that might otherwise take readers out of the story, which is good because Sanders asks readers to suspend their disbelief plenty already.

The idea of dirty cops robbing criminals isn’t new. Don Winslow set the bar for this type of setup with The Force (2017), and while Sanders’ latest isn’t anywhere close to that level, it’s still a solid crime novel. Fans of the FX television show The Shield may see parallels to the running storyline where the characters ripped of the Armenian money train, as well as several themes from the show’s final season.

While the plot is interesting and entertaining, there is surprisingly little character development. And with no real hero to root for, readers may struggle with caring much about the overall outcome. That said, fans of these types of gritty, antihero-driven crime thrillers will devour Sanders’ The Stakes, which moves fast, sucking readers in early and rarely letting them up for air.

Book Details

Author: Ben Sanders
Pages: 336 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1250140110
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Release Date: March 6, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 6.5/10


Tuesday, March 13th

The Rising Sea by Clive Cussler

“Everywhere, waters are rising–and that is just the beginning of the world’s peril, unless the NUMA crew can beat the clock in this thrilling novel from the #1 New York Times-bestselling grand master of adventure.

“An alarming rise in the world’s sea levels–much larger than could be accounted for by glacier melt–sends Kurt Austin, Joe Zavala, and the rest of the NUMA scientific team rocketing around the globe in search of answers. What they find at the bottom of the East China Sea, however, is even worse than they imagined: a diabolical plan to upset the Pacific balance of power–and in the process displace as many as a billion people.

“A rare alloy unlike anything else on earth, a pair of five-hundred-year-old Japanese talismans, an assassin so violent even the Yakuza has disowned him, an audacious technological breakthrough that will become a very personal nightmare for Kurt Austin – from the shark-filled waters of Asia to the high-tech streets of Tokyo to a forbidden secret island, the NUMA team must risk everything to head off the coming catastrophe.”

Book Details

Author: Clive Cussler and Graham Brown
SeriesNUMA #15
Pages: 416 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0735215537
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: March 13, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 6.0/10


Caribbean Rim by Randy Wayne White

Randy Wayne White stumbles a bit out of the gate with his twenty-fifth Doc Ford novel, Caribbean Rim.

Leonard Nickelby, a former professor and current director of Florida Division of Historical Resources, hooks up with a former student of his, Lydia Johnson, in an improbable meeting in the Ocala National Forest. Leonard, who is married at the time their affair begins, quickly develops feelings for the much younger Lydia, and a few months later they embark on a treasure hunt together in the Bahamas. 

Carl Fitzpatrick, who has been on many treasure hunts of his own, has previously mixed it up with Leonard, who thinks very little of anyone he considers to be an “amateur treasure hunter.” The two butted heads when Leonard impounded Fitzpatrick’s cache of rare Spanish coins, which vanishes along with Leonard and Lydia. Realizing that the duo is most likely working from a list of uncharted wreck sites that he’s compiled over the last decade, Fitz knows Leonard is heading for trouble. Because of his own adventures, he cannot go to the authorities without casting a negative light on himself. So, Fitz instead turns to his old pal, Doc Ford. 

Doc agrees to go after them, which is a good thing because Leonard and Lydia end up being captured by Salvadorian drug dealers. But, while trying to help them, Doc inadvertently finds himself in the crosshairs of very dangerous people with connections to a powerful Hollywood type who has a separate agenda, and it’s all downhill from there. . . 

Doc, a marine biologist by trade, has somehow morphed into a man who possesses a similar skill set to spies and Tier One operators — which, while somewhat entertaining, makes absolutely no sense. While certainly a step up from last year’s Mangrove Lightning, Randy Wayne White’s latest novel still lacks direction and cohesion. The plot and pacing are both choppy and inconsistent, and though there is a handful of fun, lighthearted moments, there’s not nearly enough of them to make up for the book’s other shortcomings. 

Diehard fans of this series may be willing to overlook certain flaws just to follow their favorite characters, but newcomers and fair-weather fans will likely need to turn elsewhere to get their thriller fix.

Book Details

Author: Randy Wayne White
SeriesDoc Ford #25
Pages: 336 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0735212783
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: March 13, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 5.0/10


Tuesday, March 20th

The Disappeared by C.J. Box (Featured Selection)

When the new governor of Wyoming sends game warden Joe Pickett out of his district on a special assignment, things get western in The Disappeared, the all-new novel from the king of cowboy noir, C.J. Box.

Following the events of Vicious Circle (2017), Joe Pickett and his wife, Marybeth, are living in a townhouse in Saddlestring while their rural state-owned house on Bighorn Road is being rebuilt after a fire destroyed it. Lucy, their youngest of three daughters, is the only girl still living at home. And while their lives are mixed up and chaotic, having been displaced and lost everything they owned, Joe and Marybeth do their best to keep things as normal as possible for their daughter, who’s in the middle of her senior year of high school.

That plan, however, takes a hit when Coulter Allen, the new governor, informs Joe that he’s sending him on a special assignment to Saratoga.

Almost six months prior, Kate Shelford-Longden, a well-known British executive, went missing from Silver Creek Ranch, a high-end luxury guest ranch known for hosting wealthy families and celebrities around the year. Her disappearance has caused an international tabloid media storm, which hasn’t exactly made Governor Allen’s first few months in office easygoing. Like his predecessor, the beloved (and fan-favorite) Spencer Rulon, Allen wants Joe to be his “range rider” and head to Saratoga to find some answers.

Battling a blinding January snowstorm, Joe drives the three hundred miles from Saddlestring to Saratoga, where he knows someone with a possible connection to Kate Shelford-Longden’s time in Wyoming.

As it turns out, Sheridan, Joe’s oldest daughter, is a horse wrangler at Silver Creek Ranch. Now twenty-three, Sheridan lives on the ranch year-round. Not only did she spend time with Kate Shelford-Longden, or “Cowgirl Kate” as the tabloids have taken to calling her, but Sheridan plays a significant role throughout Box’s latest book. Equal parts Joe, Marybeth, and Nate, Sheridan steals the show in her scenes and displays the kind of moxie and “it” factor that’ll have more than a few hoping to see her star in her own book or series one day. Longtime fans will enjoy her reunion with Joe and love their interactions as Joe struggles to process that his little girl is all grown up and capable of handling herself.

As he begins tracing the footsteps of other investigators who searched for Cowgirl Kate before him, word quickly spreads that a new game warden is in town. Things are complicated further when Kate’s sister accompanies a journalist to Wyoming, casting a flashbulb-sized spotlight on Joe and his investigation.

From the get-go, Joe notes that things feel off, and it doesn’t take long for him to start bumping into a number of colorful, if not questionable, characters. There’s the governor’s tightly-wound chief of staff, two brothers with a reputation for violence, a lazy employee working the night shift at a lumber mill, an elderly woman who doesn’t know how to mind her own business, a good-looking head wrangler, and a pair of mysterious men who seem to always be in the wrong place at the right time.

A separate plotline brings Nate Romanowski — a former special ops soldier turned master falconer, and Joe’s longtime friend — to Saratoga.  Though he’s gone straight and now owns his own business, Nate still struggles to adapt to life on the grid. Seeing his reaction to carrying a cell phone is nearly as funny as another scene when Nate uses an unorthodox weapon to defend himself. It’s both hilarious and, well, typical Nate all at the same time. Not only does his path cross with Joe’s, but Nate, as always, chases a crazy conspiracy theory that might just turn out to not be so crazy after all.

With a growing list of suspects and the governor’s office breathing down his neck and demanding answers or else, Joe races to discover the truth about Cowgirl Kate, which leads to a dangerous confrontation that’ll test him in more ways than one. . .

Like a magician, C.J. Box waves one hand to grab readers’ attention, and then, when they least expect it, uses the other hand to land a perfectly-timed twist that’ll knock readers right off their feet. It’s something he’s repeatedly done over the course of seventeen previous novels and continues to thrive at.

Likewise, Box continues to masterfully develop his brilliant cast of characters. Who else could turn an average-looking, ordinary, do-good game warden who’s a lousy shot and honest to a fault into the star protagonist of a #1 New York Times bestselling series? That’s the true magic of Box’s writing, though, as readers connect with the Picketts because they’re so real and relatable.

Joe and Marybeth live paycheck-to-paycheck, they struggle to attend their kids’ extracurricular activities, and each time they manage to take a step forward in life, they suddenly take two steps back. They’ve faced hardships time and time again, but always come out on the other side with each other to lean on. For those reasons and more, the Picketts are the all-American family you can’t help but root for, and no other author has ever developed an entire family the way C.J. Box has throughout his series.

The action, conspiracies, and twists are all terrific, but it’s those moments where Joe, Marybeth, and their daughters are around the table that shine the brightest–and his ability to capture the touching moments between family members with such depth and soul is what makes Box’s series one of the very best franchises in print today, regardless of genre.

A smart and compelling plot, razor-sharp writing, and nonstop suspense make this Box’s best novel to date. The standard has been set. . . The Disappeared is the book to beat in 2018.

Book Details

Author: C.J. Box
Series: Joe Pickett #18
Pages: 388 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0399176624
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons
Release Date: March 27, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 9.5/10


The Bishop’s Pawn by Steve Berry

Some readers may not know about the ugly feud between J. Edgar Hoover and Martin Luther King, Jr. Those who do probably believe that the feud ended on April 4, 1968, when James Earl Ray shot and killed King in Memphis. . . but, as Steve Berry points out in his latest thriller, that might not be the case after all. 

Fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Cotton Malone, an agent with a secret unit buried deep inside the Justice Department, re-examines what really happened to King and why.

It all starts when Malone gets a letter in the present day from someone who refers to his very first case with the Justice Department, instructing him to bring “them” to the sender. Then “them” in this case happens to be classified documents that Cotton first learned about almost two decades prior.

Eighteen years ago, Justice Department attorney Stephanie Nelle hired Malone, then a hotshot young Navy lawyer, to carry out a mission near the Florida coast. She feeds him a story about a waterproof case containing very rare coins that are worth millions of dollars onboard a sunken boat and instructs him to retrieve the case as quickly as possible. Malone accepts and heads out, unaware that he hasn’t been told the whole story.

It doesn’t take long for Cotton to inadvertently find himself caught between the Justice Department and the FBI, who are both racing to obtain the case, which on top of containing a rare coin, also holds secret documents about King’s assassination. 

Though this is actually the thirteenth book in Berry’s series, it’s the perfect starting point for newcomers because it ends up being an origin story of sorts for Cotton Malone. It’s also the first novel Steve Berry’s ever written in the first-person narrative, giving readers an inside look into Malone’s way of thinking, something longtime fans will surely enjoy. Even those who don’t typically like reading first-person narrative stories should have fun plowing through The Bishop’s Pawn, which is fast-paced and full of surprises. Berry’s writing style is terrific, and whereas a lot of first-person books are full of mostly dialogue, that’s not the case here.

As always, Berry manages to educate readers while also entertaining them. He’s one of the few authors (along with Brad Meltzer) who routinely manages to churn out smart thrillers that examine history through a new lens. The feud between Hoover and Martin was ugly, even more so than most imagined. Throughout the plot, clues about the ending are visible to those paying close attention. Even so, the final reveal will surprise many as Steve Berry offers a bold and provocative new theory about why Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed fifty years ago.

Coming off his hit 2017 novel The Lost Order, Steve Berry is back with another timely thriller that examines what we really know about the civil rights movement’s greatest martyr. . . The Bishop’s Pawn is well-written, daring, and packed full of everything Berry’s fans have come to expect from one of his novels.

 Book Details

Author: Steve Berry
Series: Cotton Malone #13
Pages: 352 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1250140226
Publisher: Minotaur Books
Release Date: March 20, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 7.5/10


High White Sun by J. Todd Scott

J. Todd Scott follows up The Far Empty (2016) with another gripping and violent crime novel centered around Texas lawman Chris Cherry.

Newly promoted sheriff of Big Bend County after the death of his boss Stanford Ross, Chris Cherry sets out to clean up his town and his department. His attention shifts, though, when the body of Billy Bravo, a Rio Grande river guide, is found in the desert. It’s clear that Billy was brutally murdered, and Cherry knows of just one group capable of such unthinkable violence — the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.

The ABT is a group of savage, tatted-out baddies who commit to the cause for life. Once you join, there’s no way to break free and still remain breathing. Those who defect die, much like anyone else who gets in their way.  Chris and his ragtag team of deputies — Ben Harper and America Reynosa — make the decision to go after them and their leader, a ferocious man by the name of John Wesley Earl, determined to pin Billy’s murder on the white supremacy gang.

While their investigation starts out promising, an unforeseen curveball leads them into an abrupt brick wall. Serving justice won’t be as easy as Chris had hoped, as they run into a number of shady characters and are tripped up by numerous lies, buried secrets, and more than a few twists and turns. . .

J. Todd Scott also weaves an old homicide into the plot, which moves along rather quickly for a crime novel. High White Sun has it all — superb writing and visual descriptions, spine-tingling suspense, misdirection, a cunning plot, and tons of action. Bullets fly early and often in this one, as a small-town sheriff goes toe-to-toe against a heartless, conniving villain whom readers will want to see knocked down a peg or two.

Though the book technically follows 2016’s The Far Empty, newcomers can jump in with ease thanks to plenty of character development and backstory. High White Sun reads like a standalone novel, and this violent crime thriller is perfect for fans of Craig Johnson, Ace Atkins, James Lee Burke, and Robert B. Parker.

Book Details

Author: J. Todd Scott
SeriesChris Cherry #2
Pages: 352 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 1524762873
Publisher: Crown
Release Date: February 20, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 7.0/10


Tuesday, March 27

Flash Points by David Hagberg

Kirk “Mac” McGarvey is spending his post-CIA director days teaching philosophy at Sarasota’s New College, a semi-private, ultra-liberal small school. It’s early March, following the presidential election, and Mac had just tasked his students with writing a lengthy paper on what Voltaire, the eighteenth-century intellectual, would have thought of the O.J. Simpson trial.

The murder trial — not the burglary one that ultimately led to him landing behind bars.

Just as class wraps up, one of Mac’s student’s — whom Hagberg describes as young people who know he manipulates them at times, but love it anyways — detonates a bomb using a cell phone.

Mac lives, but he’s injured. Later, he’s reported dead by the media, allowing him to move about without looking over his shoulder, since whoever attempted to assassinate him believes they succeeded. After spending seven days on his stomach allowing time for his severe burns and skin grafts to heal, the former youngest CIA director in American history sets out to find his former student, who may or may not be a North Korean operative, and unravel a conspiracy centered around the American president.

President Weaver, an obvious caricature of Donald Trump, is billed as a man who can “come across as a president who had no idea what he was doing, and never had.” Hagberg hits on Trump’s campaign promises, but his overdramatic flair reads more like a bad satire piece, reminiscent of Andrew Shaffer’s The Day of the Donald (2016). To be clear, the author’s political leanings don’t matter at all. It’s the execution here that misses the mark by a mile.

Eventually, Mac discovers that the attempt on his life is directly tied to a plan designed to overwhelm the new president in hopes that he’ll try to pull the United States into a nuclear war with Pakistan, China, North Korea, and Russia. Of course, according to the plan, Congress would step in and impeach him before a nuclear armageddon-like showdown actually happens. Believing he’s the one man who threatens their plan, Mac was targeted early — but now sets about to save the day for the umpteenth time in his storied career. 

Overall, Flash Points feels like a poorly ripped-off version of the fifth season of 24, the Kiefer Sutherland-led television show that follows Jack Bauer (Sutherland) as he tries to stop a large-scale conspiracy that involves those around the president. Readers who enjoy this genre are used to and expect to suspend their disbelief, but Hagberg asks them to put aside all logic and common sense for this one, which is ironic when considering that Voltaire, of whom Mac is supposed to be an expert on, maintained that “common sense wasn’t so common.”

Even still, longtime readers of Hagberg’s series may enjoy following Mac — who is now about fifty years old — around for another three hundred or so pages. Also, Hagberg does nail technical details and displays a clear understanding of geopolitics. So while the execution of the plot itself is a mess, there are positives that pop up throughout.

Book Details

Author: David Hagberg
Series: Mac McGarvey #22
Pages: 320 (Hardcover)
ISBN: 0765384884
Publisher: Forge Books
Release Date: March 27, 2018
Book Spy Rating: 4.5/10


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