Published by Ballantine Books on January 23rd 2018
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
If you’re looking for a gripping thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat, look no further than Karen Cleveland’s debut novel Need to Know. Not only it is an incredibly timely story with its focus on Russian operatives and sleeper cells in the U.S., but it’s also a well crafted one that takes us through one mother’s journey to see how far she will go to protect her family when she feels they are being threatened. And as if that isn’t enticing enough, I’ve read that Need to Know is also being made into a movie with Charlize Theron in the starring role so there’s that as well!
Need to Know follows the journey of Vivian Miller, a counter-intelligence analyst at the CIA. Incredibly skilled at what she does, Vivian has risen through the ranks and has landed a coveted job in the department that investigates all things Russia. When the novel opens, Vivian and her department have been looking for Russian sleeper cells in the U.S. and Vivian has developed an algorithm that can identify Russian operatives who handle the sleeper cells.
One morning, while remote accessing the computer of a suspected operative, Vivian locates a secret dossier containing information about deep-cover Russian agents who are currently living in the United States. What she finds makes her realize that, if true, most of her life has been a lie, and it threatens not only her job but also her husband and even her children. Vivian has taken a vow to defend the U.S. against all enemies, whether foreign or domestic, but now she finds herself in an impossible situation, one that could get her imprisoned and even charged with treason!
What will Vivian do? How far is she willing to go to protect her family? Is there anyone she can trust to help her or is she on her own?
This is another one of those stories where I feel like I’m going to be vague in what I say so as not to give away any spoilers. Because giving away any spoilers at all would ruin it, please bear with the vagueness.
In a book like this, I need a likeable main character that I can relate to and I liked Vivian right away. She’s smart, savvy, good at what she does, and she’s a great wife and a devoted mother to her four children as well. I found her job at the CIA fascinating and so I enjoyed following her as she accessed the operative’s computer and sifted through his files looking for useful information. That said, I think where I found her the most relatable was her reaction once she uncovers this threatening information and realizes her family could be in danger. As a mom, I completely related to her need to do whatever it took to make sure her children were safe. Even though I didn’t necessarily agree with what she did every step of the way, I understood that the information she found put her in a no-win situation. She was damned if she did, damned if she didn’t so the only course of action that made sense was to at least protect her children at all costs.
Need to Know is presented to the reader from Vivian’s point of view, which was probably my favorite part about the novel. Seeing the story unfold through her eyes and having a bird’s eye view of what’s going on in her head as each new detail unfolded and the threat to her family grew just made the story all the more engaging for me. Her thoughts and fears and her frantically trying to find a way to make everything in her life okay again are what really kept me turning the pages. Her desperation is palpable as is her growing paranoia as she doesn’t know who, if anyone in her life, she can trust. I found myself right there alongside her, questioning everything and everyone and wondering if she would ever be able to find a way out of the mess she was in.
I also think having the story told from Vivian’s point of view added to the suspense and the tension in the novel. As I mentioned, that’s what kept me turning the pages and unable to put the book down once I got started. The suspense builds throughout and keeps the pacing of the story quick. I was easily able to read the book in less than two days and even found myself getting ready for work with my Kindle on the bathroom counter trying to squeeze in a few more pages whenever I could. That’s impressive for any book in my opinion but is truly impressive for an author’s debut novel, which this is.
A final area that really impressed me with Need to Know was how well researched the CIA portion of the novel seemed to be. It felt like I really was watching the inner operations of a counter-intelligence department, and I realized that I basically was once I checked out the author’s bio and learned that she herself had actually worked as a CIA analyst for 8 years, 6 of that specifically in counterterrorism. Karen Cleveland is definitely writing from experience here and I appreciated the authenticity it brought to the story.
I don’t want to say much about this, but if you’re a fan of “Long Cons,” you’ll love this story. It takes the long con to a whole new level!
I did have one issue with the story and that was that I thought there was a little too much focus on the day-to-day family activities in Vivian’s life. I loved that she was a fierce mom who would do anything to keep her children safe, but I felt like I got a little bogged down a few times along the way while I was reading. I’m dying to know what’s going to happen next on the Russia front, but instead I’m sidetracked reading about one of the kids running a fever and needing to be picked up from daycare. As a parent I recognize that those kinds of things are part of life, but as a reader, I was just sitting there like “Hurry up and get back to the juicy stuff!”
Even if you don’t typically enjoy spy thrillers, I’d still highly recommend Need to Know. Even though there is a heavy spy thriller element with the focus on the CIA and the sleeper cells, the story is still basically a story about how far a woman will go to protect her family. That added layer is what really made this a phenomenal read for me, and as much as I enjoyed Need to Know, I look forward to reading more from Karen Cleveland. I’m hopeful that the way the novel ends has left the door open for a sequel because I would love to read more about Vivian.
In pursuit of a Russian sleeper cell on American soil, a CIA analyst uncovers a dangerous secret that will test her loyalty to the agency—and to her family.
What do you do when everything you trust might be a lie?
Vivian Miller is a dedicated CIA counterintelligence analyst assigned to uncover the leaders of Russian sleeper cells in the United States. On track for a much-needed promotion, she’s developed a system for identifying Russian agents, seemingly normal people living in plain sight.
After accessing the computer of a potential Russian operative, Vivian stumbles on a secret dossier of deep-cover agents within America’s borders. A few clicks later, everything that matters to her—her job, her husband, even her four children—are threatened.
Vivian has vowed to defend her country against all enemies, foreign and domestic. But now she’s facing impossible choices. Torn between loyalty and betrayal, allegiance and treason, love and suspicion, who can she trust?