Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (debut)
American Radical by Tamer Elnoury (nonfiction)
Last week I found myself deep in the world of American counterintelligence. Driving to and from work, I spent time with an undercover FBI agent fighting terrorism. At home on the couch, I joined a CIA analyst working to uncover Russian sleeper cells in the U.S. Though I’m a big fan of both Homeland and The Americans, law enforcement and the spy game are not places I typically go to with books, so I was delighted to find both these working well for me.
Need to Know by Karen Cleveland (debut)
Publisher: Ballentine Books
Release Date: January 23, 2018
Length: 286 pages
From the Publisher: “In pursuit of a Russian sleeper cell on American soil, CIA analyst Vivian Miller uncovers a dangerous secret that will threaten her job, her family—and her life. On track for a much-needed promotion, she’s developed a system for identifying Russian agents, seemingly normal people living in plain sight. After accessing the computer of a potential Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders. A few clicks later, everything that matters to her—her job, her husband, even her four children—is threatened.”
My Thoughts: Vivian Miller is a analyst for the CIA. Hers is not a dangerous job, she works the world of computer analysis in the elite Russian counterintelligence division. For many her job might even seem a little dull, until she sees husband’s face pop up in a “friends” file of a man suspected of being a Russian handler. In one glance, Viv’s entire world comes crashing down.
“I close my eyes and press harder against my temples.
Matt’s not who he says he is.
My husband’s a deep-cover Russian operative.”
From that point on Viv’s life gets more and more complicated. Matt, the father of her four children and the man Vivian deeply loves, stuns her further when he admits he’s worked for the Russians for 22-years. (That revelation is what hooked me!) Vivian loves her country, but she also loves her family and she’s quickly put into positions where she needs to choose between the two and that is the tight-wire act that is Need to Know.
I really enjoyed the play of Vivian and her husband, Matt. She, being trained in the detection of lies, and Matt, being trained in how to lie with conviction, constantly left me wondering. Cleveland used flashbacks to flesh out the couple’s history and at the same time have Vivian consider the past under the new lens of lies. I thought this worked especially well. As might be expected, Need to Know was a twisty story where the reader could often guess what the next twist might be, but that only intensified my desire to read on. I needed to know if I was right and how Viv would react.
I don’t read many law enforcement type books, and the things that bother me about most also bothered me in Need to Know. I felt like Vivian made some pretty bad choices, with not enough reason to have made them and the ending made me lose a little respect for her. It appeared too good to be true, but with the epilogue that became more clear. It also became clear that Cleveland is not done with Vivian Miller. I’m not a reader of series, so while I thoroughly enjoyed the days I spent with Viv, I doubt I’d read any sequels. Grade: B
Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest thoughts.
American Radical: Inside the World of an Undercover Muslim FBI Agent by Tamer Elnoury with Kevin Maurer
Narrator: Peter Ganim
Publisher: Dutton (Penguin Audio)
Release Date: October 23, 2017
Length: 368 pages (9 hrs. 42 min.)
From the Publisher: “A longtime undercover agent, Tamer Elnoury joined an elite counterterrorism unit after September 11. Its express purpose is to gain the trust of terrorists whose goals are to take out as many Americans in as public and as devastating a way possible. It’s a furious race against the clock for Tamer and his unit to stop them before they can implement their plans. Yet as new as this war still is, the techniques are as old as time: listen, record, and prove terrorist intent.”
My Thoughts: Wow! If you like your nonfiction to read like fiction then American Radical is a book for you. We first meet Tamer Elnoury (not his real name, but his longtime undercover alias) on the eve of September 11th as he’s working undercover as a drug dealer. He was good at his job, but after September 11th wanted to do more. Tamer came with his family from Egypt to the U.S. when he was four. His mother made sure that he kept up his Arabic and his Muslim faith. Immediately after that dark September day Elnoury offered himself to the FBI, but it was many years before they put him to use.
American Radical tells the story of the author working deep undercover as a jihadi sympathizer in order to uncover radicalized Islamic sleepers operating in the U.S. and Canada. Most of the book was spent on his work to capture Chiheb Essighaier, a Tunisian doctoral student living in Montreal. Elnoury became the money man, and Chiheb the brains behind potential acts of terrorism. In the year spent on this investigation, the two traveled around North America in search of other “like-minded” Muslims. Elnoury was good at his job. Very good. Chiheb never suspected he was being set up.
One of the things I liked best about American Radical was Elnoury’s clear distinction between the hate-filled radical Islamic beliefs of terrorists and mainstream Islam. The terrorists’ use of twisted ideologies pained Elnoury, himself a devout Muslim. Not breaking his cover, going along with reasoning he knew was in direct violation of true Islamic beliefs caused great personal anguish for Elnoury. We need to thank him for that.
“I knew the terrorist and the man. While I was happy the terrorist would never be free, I felt sorry for the man. I felt bad that a man with so much to offer the world got duped by murderers posing as holy men. It made me sad that they’d used my religion to pollute him.”
I highly recommend American Radical. Grade: A
Narration: For the most part I thought Peter Gamin’s narration was very good. He was easy to understand and handled dialogue very well. Tone and inflection were both just right. My only issue would be pace. It was a little slow for me. I listened to much of the book on 1.25 speed, and that was a little fast.
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