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Need to Know


Need to Know

Set aside a block of time to read NEED TO KNOW in one sitting. I shouldn’t tell you that this is a debut novel because the term “debut” implies that there may be some prose or plot unsteadiness to be forgiven over the course of a generally good book from an author who displays talent and the promise of improvement. That isn’t what’s going on here. Let’s say instead that Karen Cleveland successfully merges the espionage and domestic thriller subgenres to give us what surely will be one of the major books of 2018.

In addition to considerable writing chops, Cleveland brings to the table experience as a CIA analyst, which gives the over-the-shoulder peeks into the restricted areas of the United States intelligence apparatus that the reader encounters in NEED TO KNOW some extra heft. However, it is the people, not the places, that give the book its edgy atmosphere.

"In addition to penning a masterful plot and an extremely sympathetic, imperfect protagonist, Cleveland brings a cinematic narration to the table that makes her novel unfold visually."

The story is narrated almost entirely by Vivian Miller in the first person present. Vivian is a CIA analyst who is great at what she does but is overwhelmed by the combination of personal and professional demands. This is for good reason, even though her marriage is very much a 50-50 proposition, with she and her husband Matt balancing household and financial contributions. They make a strong team, but their four small children and the pricy Washington, DC suburb where they live for its superior school system bring them both to the edge of being overwhelmed. That one of their kids has serious medical needs causes some added stress as well. Still, they all have each other.

Everything explodes, though, when Vivian, who is tasked with uncovering Russian sleeper cells in the US, burrows her way into the computer of a suspected Russian operative. Once inside she discovers a file cryptically marked “Friends,” with photos of five individuals. One of them is Matt. Vivian, in violation of all rules and protocols, does not report her discovery, and ups the ante when she later confronts Matt at home with her knowledge. He readily admits that he has been working as a Russian agent, beginning at a time that predates the onset of their relationship. Vivian knows what she is supposed to do professionally, but she will lose her family if she follows through. Matt proposes what at first seems to be a solution, but when Vivian executes his plan, it only makes things worse.

Vivian has nowhere to go. She can’t report what she’s done --- even though she should --- and, understandably, she can’t trust her husband. Then someone overreaches and makes a threat that Vivian will not tolerate. She may be overwhelmed on all fronts, but that doesn’t mean she’ll lie down and give up. Utilizing skill sets that she has acquired but hasn’t used, Vivian begins to fight back, even though it may be too late.

You won’t be able to stop reading NEED TO KNOW once you start. In addition to penning a masterful plot and an extremely sympathetic, imperfect protagonist, Cleveland brings a cinematic narration to the table that makes her novel unfold visually. If this was a Netflix series (now there’s an idea), you would want to stream it by watching all of the episodes at once. And the best part? When you get to the end of the book, you will discover that Cleveland is just getting warmed up. And that’s all you need to know.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 25, 2018

Need to Know
by Karen Cleveland

  • Publication Date: January 23, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction, Suspense, Thriller
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 1524797022
  • ISBN-13: 9781524797027