The Soccer Parent’s Rescue Guide

A fall reading list to keep your mind from atrophying during some long, long after-school afternoons.

Many newspapers, magazines and websites publish summer reading lists, which is curious when you think about it. When you're on summer vacation, aren’t you supposed to be doing interesting and fun things with your family?  Don’t you have more time to read in the winter?  (We sure do in my frozen neck of the woods.)

But as autumn approaches, one group of people exists that need a lifeline to excitement — soccer parents. They're about to be stuck at a field for an hour and half (and that doesn’t even cover time for warm-ups and the post-game coach talk) of a “sport,” which as Hank Hill memorably observed, “was invented by European housewives as a way to keep busy while their husbands did the cooking.”

So, here are a few ways to keep your mind from atrophying during some long, long after-school afternoons.

The Officer’s Club
by Ralph Peters
Tor, $7.99,  384 pp.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters is best known for his superb commentary on post-9/11 military strategy from Iraq to the Global War on Terror — both as one of the Obama administration’s most vocal critics and as one of the Bush administration’s most honest ones. But here is something that isn't said enough about Ralph Peters: He is one of America’s literary treasures.

From his first novel, Red Army (which I described at the time as Red Storm Rising from the Soviet point of view) to his fine series of Civil War mysteries written under the pseudonym of Owen Parry, Peters’ books are not just terrific thrillers; they are superb novels in every literary sense of the word.

His latest, The Officers’ Club, is like nothing you've ever read; even when you've plowed through 100 pages, you'll have no idea where it's going. Still, you'll be utterly absorbed in getting there.

Set in a remote desert military intelligence training base just after the Iran Hostage Crisis, the novel focuses on a U.S. military that is humiliated and demoralized, though the election of Ronald Reagan on a platform of rebuilding it offers a glimmer of hope to the post-Vietnam force.

The shocking murder of Lt. Jessica Lamoreaux in her quarters at Arizona’s Ft. Huachuca, where the war games being drawn up for a possible war with the Soviet Union are nowhere near as complex as those played by Lamoreaux with the hearts of the men stationed there.

From the career officer in the outwardly perfect military marriage to the young and sincere Christian shavetail, the only man seeimgly immune to her considerable charms is 2nd Lt. Roy Banks, the story’s narrator — though that’s because he's already making bad romantic choices.

Banks, an up-and-coming military thinker, is a Farsi speaker who is trying to revolutionize the Army’s approach to war games focused on the Soviet threat, even as he worries about the growing tendency toward jihadism in the Muslim world. One guesses there is a more than a little of Peters in this character.

Peter’s vividly draws readers into a time and place and inhabits it with complex and vivid characters.  Though The Officers’ Club is driven more by its character than its plot, it is still a book where the less said about what happens in it, the better.

The closest comparison to this book I can think of is historian Thomas Fleming’s terrific 1970s bestselling epic, Officer’s Wives, which took Korean War officers and their families through the peacetime Army and into the Vietnam War, though Club is far more specific in its focus and even less predictable.  This was probably the book Nelson DeMille wanted to write when he penned The General’s Daughter, and it’s a measure of Peters’ skill that he was able to pull off in spectacular fashion what DeMille could only hint at.

Bing West argues that saddling the U.S. military with nation-building and social work roles is threatening to sap its “martial spirit.”  In The Officer’s Club, Peters takes us back to a time when that spirit had been all but sapped. As such, it’s a cautionary tale as well.

The Fifth Witness
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown, $27.99, 448 pp.

If you want to know how the housing bubble started and who turned it into a crisis, check out Peter Schwiezer’s excellent Architects of Ruin or Matthew Vadum’s expose of ACORN, Subversion Inc.

But if you'd like an entertaining look at why it won’t get better any time soon and the government-banking bureaucracy that keeps us mired in the housing recession, I have an offbeat suggestion for you: Michael Connelly’s latest Lincoln Lawyer novel, The Fifth Witness.

Mystery fiction’s favorite defense lawyer, Mickey Haller, has a new client with big media potential: a single mom in foreclosure who is accused of killing the banker in charge of her case.

The evidence is pretty damning and the motive obvious. The fact that opportunity also presented itself has Haller going for a SODDI defense. (Some Other Dude Did It.)

And, indeed, another dude does raise his ugly head -- the president of a MERS-like foreclosure mill who may or may not have Mob connections.

The Fifth Witness takes us through the banking and government regulation maze of the current mortgage mess while establishing motive. But since this is a Michael Connelly book, don’t expect any liberal preaching about evil capitalist banks and poor victims who were trapped into buying houses. In fact, Connelly proposes deadbeats and those with other agendas have plenty of opportunity to exploit the crisis for their own ends.

This is one of the best books in the Haller series and easily the most topical. But Connelly, who continuously bolsters his reputation as the best mystery writer of his generation, never lets the information get in the way of good storytelling. Connelly’s signature killer twists and Haller’s sideways methods of justice pack a great punch, even though we have come to expect them.

Hollywood turned The Lincoln Lawyer, the first Haller novel, into a solid movie with inspired casting, and no doubt there are plans to film more installments in the series. The cliché, however, holds: Read the book, don’t wait for the movie.

Those in Peril
by Wilbur Smith
St. Martin's, $27.99, 400 pp.

Wilbur Smith has spent 50 years on international bestseller lists, and he's been one of my half-dozen favorite authors since I discovered him about the same time I discovered girls more than 35 years ago.  Smith’s wildly adventurous sagas have chronicled larger-than-life pioneers and entrepreneurs making their way through wars and rumors of wars in Africa -- from the Boers and the African National Congress to the Mahdi’s jihadist hordes and Robert Mugabe’s communist guerillas.

So what could be better than a Smith book about Somali pirates?  Well, unfortunately, just about anything else he has ever written.

Those in Peril is a great, almost too obvious and perfect idea, but its execution smells like an proposal insisted upon by the publisher, rather than something Smith was inspired to write. One gets the impression the author was as bored with the project as the reader will be for lonnnggg stretches even though, by Smith’s standards, it’s a pretty short book.  It’s really too bad.

But I wouldn’t write this off as a sign of a writer in decline just yet. His last novel, Assegai, showed Smith at the peak of his powers with a wild yarn about German spies and Boer collaborators, big-game hunting with Teddy Roosevelt and a spymaster who fought the Muslim hordes with Chinese Gordon in Sudan. I’m still looking forward to his next book.

Misery Bay
by Steve Hamilton
Minotaur, $27.99, 304 pp.

For lovers of the traditional mystery series hero, the book of the year so far is Steve Hamilton’sMisery Bay, which features the return of Alex McKnight, a retired Detroit cop and baseball player who is now an Upper Peninsula hotel owner and sometime private investigator.

The local police chief, usually a thorn in Alex's side, recruits him to look into every parent’s nightmare — the suicide of the son of the chief's former partner. Other than the notion that no one thought the young college student was an outwardly happy kid, there is no reason to find the death suspicious, and Alex is reluctant to wallow in such misery.

But he is struck by the cinematic desolation of the suicide spot, a lonely tree overlooking the desolate Misery Bay. But upon his return to the U.P. hamlet of Paradise, Alex finds the father of the dead boy murdered in the chief’s house, which sets him on a course to encounter perhaps the cruelest scheme for revenge he has ever encountered.

This is not one of the more violent or action packed entries in the series, but it's possibly the most chilling. The emotional resonance lasts long after the book is set aside.

Hamilton’s non-McKnight mystery, The Lock Artist, won the Edgar Award for the best novel pf 2011.  His return to more familiar territory undoubtedly will earn him more awards and accolades.

The Final Hour
by Andrew Klavan
Nelson, $14.99, 352 pp.

Finally, we end with something you can give your exhausted child after the soccer game is over, instead of just letting him or her plop in front of the tube — that is, after you read it yourself during the course of one game.

Friend of Frontpage Andew Klavan wraps up his terrific young adult Homelanders Series with The Final Hour, a slam-bang finale that has his young hero, Charlie West, racing to stop a terrorist strike with WMDs in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.

Think 24 meets The Fugitive meets The Hardy Boys, and you won’t be far off.

Charlie spent the first three books of the series on the run, falsely accused of murder and unable to remember how he got in this mess except that it has something to do with a homegrown group of Islamist terrorists. Now he's getting his memory back -- and remembering the details of a plot to kill millions of Americans.

The problem is, Charlie is in a maximum security prison, with Black Muslims trying to kill him and neo-Nazis trying to recruit him for their own ends — a fix Frank and Joe never had to deal with. The unflaggingly patriotic and Christian Charlie provides the young adult market with a great role model — and a foundation for why America is worth defending — but Klavan is far too deft a writer to let that slow the plot or get too heavy handed. Despite its high-minded undertones, The Final Hour is just plain great fun.

The Final Hour is an immensely satisfying ending to the best current series written for the youth market by a big-name adult fiction writer. The only disappointment is that Klavan didn’t draw this out through a couple more books; but knowing this superb writer, it’s because he’s got something even better in store.