Need to Know by Karen Cleveland

SPOILER ALERT: The basic premise (which is a surprise at several points) of Karen Cleveland’s Need to Know is laid out here; so if you want total surprise, stop reading! But I’m not giving away the BFD ending which is designed to be a real shocker, so if you don’t mind reading a plot outline, have at it!

I had read some of the hype about this book (optioned as a film with Charlize Theron, so my image of protagonist Vivian Miller was of Charlize), so I was pleased to get an advance copy of this book from Random House/Ballantine and NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. As the story begins, we meet Vivian Miller (Charlize), a super-dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst who has been working for years on a project that, if successful, will uncover the identities of people living in the U.S. as members of Russian sleeper cells. She has developed this system to identify the people who appear to be normal residents of the U.S., but who are actually working as Russian agents.

Vivian’s life has gotten complicated as she and her husband Matt and their four children live the lifestyle of a middle-class couple, complete with a big mortgage and some medical problems for one of their kids that guarantee they can’t just walk away from her job on a whim. One day, while she is online accessing the computer of someone she thinks may be a Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret file that contains information about deep-cover agents in the U.S. As she scrolls through the photos of the agents assigned to the suspected handler, she is stunned to see her husband Matt’s photo. She is torn about what to do – if she turns him in, her job will be over, her kids will be devastated, and everything that matters to her will be gone. Should she confront Matt? Maybe tell her boss? Or tell her trusted friend who works with her on the special project, FBI Agent Omar?

She seems to be faced with impossible choices. She starts looking back at her entire relationship with Matt – how they “met cute,” fell in love, got married, had kids, lived together for a decade – is it possible she is wrong, her life’s work of developing a method to identify the sleeper agents a failure?

I really enjoyed the process of reading this, and it was pretty much all-engrossing. But it required a bit of willing suspension of disbelief, because this genius woman seemed to keep making some dumb decisions. But then, I’d think, “Who knows what I’d do in her situation?”

Good plotting, good character development, good escapist entertainment. More than a bit unsettling, TBH. Just like you sometimes find out the seemingly normal guy down the block is a serial killer, you might have a member of a sleeper cell in the neighborhood, coaching your kid’s soccer team. Four stars.

The Quantum Spy by David Ignatius

COVER Ignatius Quantum Spy.jpg

I remember a year or so ago when Justin Trudeau was asked a snarky question about quantum computing, and proceeded to explain it in language we could understand…and the whole concept of things being two things at once kind of blew my mind. “Things can be in two places at once. The coin is both heads and tails. The cat is alive and dead. A bit is zero and one. It’s only the act of observing these phenomena that collapses their ambiguous state. ” In The Quantum Spy, the race is on between the U.S. and China to build the first quantum computer.

It’s a great setup for David Ignatius of the Washington Post to entertain us with a 21st century spy thriller…and, thanks to W.W. Norton and NetGalley, I received a copy in exchange for this honest review.

Early on, we meet John Vandel, long-time CIA operative, who is wise to what it takes to survive in the Agency: “He wrote an eyes-only memo later that morning for the national security adviser to cover himself. The rest, he didn’t want to know. The Director was a former member of Congress. Letting the staff do the dirty work was a way of life.”

Some years ago, an Army Ranger named Harris Chang saved Vandel’s life in Iraq. When Vandel thanked him, Chang said “You would have done it for me,” to which Vandel replied “No fucking way.” This tells us quite a bit about both men, and as the story alternates locations including China, Singapore, Washington, D.C., Iraq and Seattle, we follow their efforts to beat China in the race for quantum computing superiority.

Chang goes to a quantum research lab that has been compromised by a suspected Chinese informant. There is a hunt for the mole who may have penetrated the highest levels of the Agency, and things hop around, with a bit of uncertainty that parallels the quantum state: there are leaks, but do the leaks expose real secrets, or are they false trails meant to deceive the Chinese? Chang finds that there is a thin line between loyalty and betrayal, as he follows the path of the investigation wherever it leads.

Sometimes techno-thrillers can be daunting, with details that are beyond the casual reader of spy novels. In this one, Ignatius has done a great job of combining a twisting plot with self-revelation that parallels the paradox of quantum computing. Chang is the model of a conflicted spy who has dealt with racism and bigotry his entire life, and who faces his own duality as he works to solve the puzzle surrounding the mole.

Spy novel fans, computer buffs, mystery lovers, and anyone who likes a plot with lots of twists and well-developed characters will love this one. Five stars.