Damascus Station – David McCloskey
I believe this is my third espionage novel written by a former CIA employee in recent months. And it was, by far, the best of that bunch.

Set in, wait for it, Damascus, Syria, it is the story of an American CIA officer who recruits a member of the Syrian intelligence service and gets pulled into the truly bizarre world of the Syrian government. Oh, he’s an attractive man, she’s an attractive woman, and they become far more than agent and handler.

I think what set this book above the others like it I’ve read recently is that it seemed about 18% more believable. The whole romance angle gets done a lot in spy stories, but that really worked in this one. And perhaps because it took place in Syria, a country that we know little about, I bought into McCloskey’s description of its history, its current state, and its byzantine governmental hierarchy a little more. Oh, and the story was very good.

I still can’t quite say what it was that made this book stand out. But it did, and it one of my favorite spy reads of the past couple years.

Billy Summers – Stephen King
It’s amazing how King just keeps going. He’s 74 and continues to crank out novels. After a lull a decade or so back, his works have generally been pretty good recently. This one was a bit of a disappointment, though.

Billy Summers is a hitman who takes on one, last, very unusual assignment before he retires. The job involves spending anywhere from weeks to months setting himself up in a location waiting for conditions to align so he can make this hit. As he waits he is supposed to pose as an author working on a book. With nothing better to do, he decides to go ahead and pretend to be a writer and put the parts of his life that lead him to becoming a hitman down on (digital) paper. When the time arrives for the hit, there are complications, which give Summers two new missions.

What sets King’s best works apart are some strange magic that only he seems able to conjure. Sadly that magic is missing here. It feels like the bones of a good story that he just couldn’t get all the adornments adjusted correctly around. There are plenty of nice moments, even the obligatory references to another classic King work, but the book never reaches the heights of my favorites of his work.

The Roanoke Girls – Amy Engel
I believe this is the second time I’ve read a book written by someone that I know. I know Amy from way back, and was aware that she wrote a YA series and then moved into more adult works. A couple friends told me that this book was a really good read, but it was also very dark and not what I would likely expect from the author. I was reminded of it recently, with another heads-up that it is kind of twisted, and decided to track it down.

That warning was super true.

The story revolves around a family in a small Kansas town, and the multi-generational secret that dominates their existence. As I was warned, I picked up on the hints right away and knew what was coming. That didn’t make the slow revelation any less shocking.

Back when I used to think about writing some fiction, I always struggled with how to write about darker subjects. I wasn’t sure I would feel comfortable letting friends and family read something that was kind of fucked up, lest they think I was kind of fucked up. I think it’s great that Engel got over any qualms she had about chasing an interesting story at the risk of having people wonder where the hell she got that idea from. Oh, and it’s a really good story, too.