Auntie M has two books that are as far apart as you can get on the setting scale, but both satisfying reads of different kinds.

First up is Andrew Kaplan’s entry in his Scorpion series, Scorpion Winter, a thriller that  takes place largely in the Ukraine with stops in the Middle East and Europe, featuring a killer pacing that never lets up. Kirkus Reviews says: “Kaplan takes the thriller genre at its word, moving as fast as Ludlum but with ten times the eye for settings and crisp characterizations.”

Scorpion is a former CIA covert operative who operates on a freelance basis. This means he has friends–and enemies–in almost every country in the world.

His newest assignment is to prevent the assassination of a Ukraine politician on the eve of an election that has world-wide consequences and interests. Assisting him, despite his initial misgivings, is the very lovely Iryna Shevchenko, whose father founded the Independent movement in the country.

But everything goes horribly wrong, and Iryna and Scorpion soon find themselves on the run, hunted down as the assassins themselves as they become caught in the trap of an unknown enemy. With NATO, Russia and US forces ready to become involved in a war, they race against time to find the real murderers and clear their names. Along the way, there are plenty of deaths, sleight of hand maneuvers, impossible getaways, and enough violence told in a matter-of-fact disturbing way to keep you awake at night.

The pacing is relentless as the couple, whose attraction to each other becomes too strong to ignore, face the brutal realities of too many sub-culture political parties operating under the radar. Acronyms abound: The SVR, the SBU, the NSA and even Chinese mobsters are involved at different points.

Scorpion proves himself to be a master of deception, with false identities and useful fighting and burglary skills learned over the years that keep him just one small step ahead of his opponents–until a false step lands him in prison and in the hands of a sadistic madman. The torture he endures is horrific; with no salvation in sight, his death is imminent. How he gets himself out of that situation, and the eventual unraveling of this twisted plot, will leave readers stunned. When Scorpion says near the end: “Sometimes you need your enemies more than your friends,” you will understand the complicated life he’s chosen to lead.

Kaplan has done exhaustive research, and the cold winter of Siberia looms real enough to make your joints ache. The use of phrases in Russian and other languages are thoughtfully translated for the reader but add to the feel of being on the other side of the world. This is an action thriller that will leave you breathless at its end.

Doing a hard 180 degree turn, we travel to the Midwest and the Great Lakes area of Iowa. Linda Lovely first introduced retired military intelligence officer Marley Clark in the SC low country mystery Dear Killer, where Marley’s security job formed the basis for that mystery. In No Wake Zone, Marley travels to a family reunion for her feisty Aunt May’s birthday, expecting a totally different kind of vacation from the one she encounters.

Marley gets roped into helping her tourist-boat captain cousin aboard his boat on West Okoboji Lake for a wedding reception, but never dreams she’ll find herself diving into the cold depths of the lake in a vain attempt to save the life of a billionaire.

The founder of a biotech company is the unlucky groom, only he’s dead before he hits the water. When it turns out an old college friend is the bride, Marley finds herself deeply embroiled in the murder investigation.

Each member of the tycoon’s family try to top each other as Nastiest Relative of the Year in the greed department. Adding to the mix is the head of an international security company who has his own issues against Marley from their previous association.

Things heat up even more when Marley’s former Pentagon boss enlists her aid in the investigation and intrigue abounds.

Then a handsome attorney with his own secrets steps into the case and Marley finds herself attracted to him, despite her inner turmoil over trusting him, all under the inquisitive eye of Aunt May. When the deaths start to mount up, the killer soon targets Marley and her family and the suspense rises as the pace continues to pound along.

There’s plenty of action here and a gripping plot with as many turns as the amusement park rides that feature in an action-packed climax scene. The dialogue is snappy and you’ll be longing for another adventure with Marley Clark when you turn the last page.

The author spent summers in the Spirit Lake area with her family and her real-life captain cousin played a major role in the creation of the Maritime Museum, which also becomes a setting. Her familiarity with the area, including local landmarks and restaurants, brings it to life for those not familiar with this area of the Midwest.

It’s refreshing to have a well-written series with an engaging protagonist who is 52, smart and witty, and with a zest for life that is engaging.

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