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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Ghost War, by Alex Berenson ($9.99)

This is the most excellent follow-up to The Faithful Spy. CIA agent John Wells is now famous, whether he wants to be or not, for having saved the United States from al-Qaeda terrorists. In The Ghost War, it is a year later and John is living in the U.S. He is trying to re-define his life in a world he hasn't lived in for ten years. As a deep undercover agent with al-Qaeda in the deserts of the Middle East and as a convert to Islam, John did what he had to do to survive. Now he feels he no longer fits into the world of American culture or Washington, D.C., spy politics. Neither does Jennifer Exley, his boss and girlfriend. As a result they and a few others are in a side organization that works on the fringes of legitimacy – and it works for them.

In an intense desire to rid himself of his demons or the vision of all the people he has had to kill over the years or perhaps to kill himself – even John doesn't know – he races his motorcycle hell-bent-for-leather on highways in the early hours of the morning. He doesn't kill himself, and because of his fame, he doesn't even get a ticket for speeding. Is that what his life will be like from now on – life in a bubble?

Across the world, the North Koreans have sussed out one of the U.S.'s most deeply imbedded agents. How did they uncover him? The trail leads to China and an intensely ambitious party bureaucrat. Then let's bring in a CIA mole, more of al-Qaeda, some Russians, a contentious CIA official, and an arms dealer. And this concoction works.

However, Berenson needs to learn how to better integrate his explanations of spy vocabulary. It is rather jarring when he pauses to explain the military or technical abbreviations or slang. (I realize that this says more about me than about Berenson's writing.) Otherwise, he has great pacing and drama. His mysteries and their unraveling are intelligent and provocative. He makes John Wells' psychic pain heart-wrenching. It's a difficult task but Berenson leads us into a better understanding of the cultural clashes that define our world today.

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