Executive Times






2008 Book Reviews


The Ghost War by Alex Berenson








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In his second novel, The Ghost War, Alex Berenson reprises the CIA hero, John Wells, whom he created in his debut novel, The Faithful Spy. Having saved Times Square, Wells finds himself at a desk job, and when an opportunity to return to the field arises, Wells jumps at the chance. Along the way, his character develops further, Berenson continues to expand his skills in the spy novel genre, and readers have the opportunity to join in a fast-paced, quick-thinking, riff on power. Here’s an excerpt, about some of Wells’ behavior as he adjusts to his post-heroic existence, from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 12-14:


Drink this and you’ll grow wings on your feet.

John Wells wound down the throttle with his gloved right hand. Be­neath him the engine groaned and the tachometer rolled toward 8,000 rpm and the big black bike jumped forward. Wells leaned close to the bike's angular gas tank to lower his profile against the wind. Still he had to fight to keep upright. The Honda was a meaty motorcycle, heavier and wider than a true racing bike.

Wells lifted his head and peeked at the speedometer. Ninety. He'd imagined faster. Beside him the highway was a blur, the trees beside the road blending into a single leafy cipher. He was halfway between Washington and Baltimore, hardly a rural oasis, but at 3:00 A.M. even the interstate was empty. At this speed the road's curves disappeared in the dark. Interstates were built for bad drivers, Wells knew, grandmothers heading to the mall, truckers high on meth and anxious to get home. They were built with soft curves to forgive mistakes.

Even so, Wells was pushing the limits of this highway. Anything could take him out. A raccoon prospecting for garbage. A car changing lanes and forgetting to signal. A broken bottle blowing out his front tire, sending him over the handlebars and into eternity. A stupid, pointless way to go. Yet here he was in the dark, as he'd been the week before, and the week before that, on the nights when midnight and 1:00 A.M. came and went and sleep re­mained foreign territory.

Here the rich, smooth pavement soothed him. The speed made his mind vanish, leaving him with snatches of half-remembered songs, some old, some new. The words blended into a strange poetry he could never remem­ber when the rides were done.

Wells relaxed the throttle and the tach and the speedometer dropped in unison. At seventy-five the wind dropped slightly and the Springsteen in his head faded.

From his earlier rides he knew he was approaching the sweet spot. He slowed to sixty as the road lifted him gently over a low hill. The trees disappeared. To his right, a shopping center parking lot glowed under over­sized lights. Behind a blue dumpster, two police cars nuzzled beside each other, windows down, the cops inside telling each other stories to make the night pass. Just a few hours to go. It was close to 5:00 A.M., and the sun would be up soon enough. Wells thought of Exley, alone now in their bed, wonder­ing when he'd be back, and in how many pieces.

Jennifer Exley, his girlfriend. His boss at the Central Intelligence Agency, where he worked as a—as a what? Hard to say. Last year he and Exley had stopped a terrorist attack that would have dwarfed September 11. Now he was back in Washington, and—how to put this politely?—at loose ends. Comma bin Laden wasn't happy with him, that much was certain. In an hourlong communiqu~ that even Wells hadn't bothered to sit through, bin Laden had promised eternal glory to anyone who killed him. "Allah will smile on the martyr who sends this infidel to hell. . . ." Yadda yadda yadda. But as a practical matter, Qaeda couldn't touch him, at least in the United States. So Wells was waiting for a new mission. In truth, though, he couldn't imagine what that might be. He wasn't built for desk work.

Meanwhile, he burned his days with three-hour-long workouts, and his nights with these joyless joyrides. Exley hated them, and a week earlier, Wells had promised her they would end. He'd thought he was telling the truth. But this morning he hadn't been able to stop himself. Exley hadn't argued when he rolled out of bed and pulled on his jeans and grabbed his helmet. No, Exley hadn't argued, hadn't said a word, and Wells supposed he loved her for her silence.

But not enough to stay.

Now Wells flexed his shoulders and stared down the perfect three-lane void ahead. This time when he twisted the throttle he didn't hesitate but instead pulled back as far as he could. The bike surged, and suddenly Wells heard

Just don't play with me 'cause you're playing with fire...

Not the confident strut of Mick Jagger but the bleak, reedy tones of Johnny Thunder.

The engine roared and the speedometer needle jumped from fifty-five to eighty-five and kept going. When it topped one hundred, Wells flattened himself on the gas tank and hung on. For dear life, he thought. Though anyone watching might wonder exactly what those words meant to him. And then everything faded but the wind and the road, the bike jolting off every crease, its wheels caressing the highway, and Springsteen's unmistak­able voice in his ears:

Drink this and you'll grow wings on your feet.

Wells glimpsed the speedometer, its white needle past 120, its tip quiver­ing. It maxed out at 125, with the tach in the red zone at 9,000 revolutions per minute. He had never pushed the bike so far. He laid off the throttle and watched himself come back to earth.

A few seconds later, he heard the siren screaming. The lights pulsed red­-blue-red-blue in his mirrors, half a mile behind but gaining fast.

He flexed his hand around the throttle. Part of him wanted to wind it down and take off again. He doubted the trooper could match his speed. He could probably get to the next exit and disappear.


The Ghost War provides fine entertainment and plenty of distraction for readers who enjoy a spy novel and some plausible scenarios from the emerging world stage.


Steve Hopkins, April 21, 2008



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the May 2008 issue of Executive Times


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