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Jonas works for the UK secret service as an intelligence analyst. When his father is kidnapped and held for ransom by ISIS gunmen in Syria, he takes matters into his own hands and begins to steal the only currency he has access to: secret government intelligence. He heads to Beirut with a haul of the most sensitive documents imaginable and recruits an unlikely ally – an al Jonas works for the UK secret service as an intelligence analyst. When his father is kidnapped and held for ransom by ISIS gunmen in Syria, he takes matters into his own hands and begins to steal the only currency he has access to: secret government intelligence. He heads to Beirut with a haul of the most sensitive documents imaginable and recruits an unlikely ally – an alcoholic Swiss priest named Father Tobias. Despite barely surviving his previous contact with ISIS, Tobias agrees to travel into the heart of the Islamic State and inform the kidnappers that Jonas is willing to negotiate for his father’s life. When the British and American governments realise they may be dealing with betrayal on a scale far greater than that of Edward Snowden, they try everything in their power to stop Jonas, and he finds himself tested to the limit as he fights to keep the negotiations alive and play his enemies off against each other. As the book races towards a thrilling confrontation in the Syrian desert, Jonas will have to decide how far he is willing to go to see his father again.


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Jonas works for the UK secret service as an intelligence analyst. When his father is kidnapped and held for ransom by ISIS gunmen in Syria, he takes matters into his own hands and begins to steal the only currency he has access to: secret government intelligence. He heads to Beirut with a haul of the most sensitive documents imaginable and recruits an unlikely ally – an al Jonas works for the UK secret service as an intelligence analyst. When his father is kidnapped and held for ransom by ISIS gunmen in Syria, he takes matters into his own hands and begins to steal the only currency he has access to: secret government intelligence. He heads to Beirut with a haul of the most sensitive documents imaginable and recruits an unlikely ally – an alcoholic Swiss priest named Father Tobias. Despite barely surviving his previous contact with ISIS, Tobias agrees to travel into the heart of the Islamic State and inform the kidnappers that Jonas is willing to negotiate for his father’s life. When the British and American governments realise they may be dealing with betrayal on a scale far greater than that of Edward Snowden, they try everything in their power to stop Jonas, and he finds himself tested to the limit as he fights to keep the negotiations alive and play his enemies off against each other. As the book races towards a thrilling confrontation in the Syrian desert, Jonas will have to decide how far he is willing to go to see his father again.

30 review for Beside the Syrian Sea

  1. 5 out of 5

    Ian

    I don’t read a lot of books in this genre, but at the end of last year I read an online article in which various authors were asked about some of their favourite reads of 2018. This book was recommended by the author/historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, and on looking it up I saw the quote on the cover from James Naughtie, who in the UK is a fairly well-known presenter of news/current affairs programmes on the radio. I decided these endorsements were a cut above the usual publishers’ marketing mate I don’t read a lot of books in this genre, but at the end of last year I read an online article in which various authors were asked about some of their favourite reads of 2018. This book was recommended by the author/historian Simon Sebag Montefiore, and on looking it up I saw the quote on the cover from James Naughtie, who in the UK is a fairly well-known presenter of news/current affairs programmes on the radio. I decided these endorsements were a cut above the usual publishers’ marketing material and was persuaded to give the book a try. One thing to be aware of is that, although this is a contemporary thriller, it is already a bit dated, as it’s set during the time that the Islamic State/Daesh controlled large parts of Syria and Iraq. The reader must cast their mind back a couple of years. I realise that in writing a thriller, the author has to build the plot, but I’d have to say I found this a very slow burner. The first 100 pages or so were like wading through treacle. The second half of the book saves it though. I thought the novel was very cleverly plotted. Any novel of this type involves a certain suspension of disbelief, but this one stays (reasonably) plausible. The story features operatives of M.I.6 and the CIA, but the sense of realism in the book was enhanced by the way these agents were limited by the rules. In countries like Great Britain and the USA, government agencies can’t simply do whatever they want, and that’s reflected in the novel. An online piece I read about the author advised that he lived in the Middle East for 10 years. I suspect he lived in Lebanon which is where the novel is mostly set, and which he clearly knows well. He obviously knows his way around Beirut. I thought about rating this as 3 stars because of the slow start, but I really did enjoy the second half. Overall, 3.5 stars rounded up to four.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jessica Bronder

    Jonas is a British intelligence officer located. He learns that his father has been kidnapped by ISIS and tries to get the British government to help with the ransom. But the British government doesn’t negotiate. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Jonas seals secrets and heads to Beirut to get his father back. He realizes his limitations and asks Gather Tobias, a drunken Swiss priest to help with the negotiations. What follows is a race against time as Jonas tries to get his father bac Jonas is a British intelligence officer located. He learns that his father has been kidnapped by ISIS and tries to get the British government to help with the ransom. But the British government doesn’t negotiate. Deciding to take matters into his own hands, Jonas seals secrets and heads to Beirut to get his father back. He realizes his limitations and asks Gather Tobias, a drunken Swiss priest to help with the negotiations. What follows is a race against time as Jonas tries to get his father back. The government knows he stole secrets and is trying to catch him. Jonas has to stay one step ahead of the government and ISIS to try and play them off each other. But it’s going to be close to save his father. This is a great, action filled story. Jonas is not your typical hero. He is more soft spoken and very introverted. But when it comes to saving his father, he is willing to do whatever it takes, even stealing from his own government. For a first book, James Wolff has a great read. I’m and curious to see what he comes up with for his next book. I received a complimentary copy of this book. I voluntarily chose to read and post an honest review.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Forthbridge

    I bought this book after following a recommendation by Marcel Berlin of The Times. I am glad I did. The plot is absorbing and the characters are flawed enough to be authentic. Add in the smorgasbord of forces swirling around the Middle East and you have a very promising novel. The author clearly knows a lot about the greater Beirut neighbourhood. It looks as if James Wolff is a pseudonym for someone who, according to his publisher, 'grew up in the Middle East and has worked for the British Govern I bought this book after following a recommendation by Marcel Berlin of The Times. I am glad I did. The plot is absorbing and the characters are flawed enough to be authentic. Add in the smorgasbord of forces swirling around the Middle East and you have a very promising novel. The author clearly knows a lot about the greater Beirut neighbourhood. It looks as if James Wolff is a pseudonym for someone who, according to his publisher, 'grew up in the Middle East and has worked for the British Government for ten years.' If this book is not a masterpiece it is pretty close to one. Hollywood should option it without delay and hire Ewan Macgregor to play Jonas, Roger Allam as Naseby (he does diffidence so well) and there is a fabulous female part for Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep or anyone who can portray a mature lady who looks like a benign upper class aunt but has a core of tempered steel. An amazing debut.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Calzean

    The author tries to copy Le Carre in having a member of the British Secret Service going rogue when his own father gets kidnapped in Syria. The rogue is a MI6 analyst with no field experience but somehow he balances the demands of the kidnappers, the hunt for him by British, US and maybe Israel, the aid of a freelance negotiator and the murky assistance of Hezbollah. The rogue uses various people for his own needs before a most undramatic dramatic ending.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Gina

    I am not a great thriller reader but I loved this original, well written, page turning roller coaster. Jonas is the most unlikely under cover operator imaginable. He sets off for Beirut in an attempt to release his kidnapped father from the clutches of a Syrian terrorist group. Deeply introverted and a pathological avoider of confrontation, he finds himself bouncing between the CIA, MI5 and Hezbollah. He tries to outwit the professionals, all the time aware that this is a virtual impossibility. I am not a great thriller reader but I loved this original, well written, page turning roller coaster. Jonas is the most unlikely under cover operator imaginable. He sets off for Beirut in an attempt to release his kidnapped father from the clutches of a Syrian terrorist group. Deeply introverted and a pathological avoider of confrontation, he finds himself bouncing between the CIA, MI5 and Hezbollah. He tries to outwit the professionals, all the time aware that this is a virtual impossibility. A beautifully put together, well rounded and satisfying read. Thank you Mr Wolff.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mr. Gottshalk

    The cover of this book has a one sentence review by James Naughtie: "A dazzling thriller for our time...gritty and diamond-sharp." Come on. On the surface, this new novel had a lot to like: spies, complex relationships, double-crossing, a drunk priest, and some new territory for me to learn about: the tiny country of Lebanon. Instead, I found a lot of this book to have preachy long-winded dialogues by a few characters (not all of them were horrible), a pace that crept forward one long chapter at The cover of this book has a one sentence review by James Naughtie: "A dazzling thriller for our time...gritty and diamond-sharp." Come on. On the surface, this new novel had a lot to like: spies, complex relationships, double-crossing, a drunk priest, and some new territory for me to learn about: the tiny country of Lebanon. Instead, I found a lot of this book to have preachy long-winded dialogues by a few characters (not all of them were horrible), a pace that crept forward one long chapter at a time, and an ending that left me wanting more after just over 300 pages. It's ok, but not a book I would want to read again, even if I am not truly appreciating it as much as some of the other reviewers on here say I ought to.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Kevin

    A really interesting and different sort of espionage novel. Some great characters and plotting but also explores complex issues like family, faith, loyalty and love. Throw in the politics of the Middle East and you have a great read.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Victoria

    When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head. Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him. Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. When reading this British spy thriller, you may feel that, like the protagonist, you’ve gone for a stroll in a dangerous section of town and found yourself in over your head. Jonas’s father, part of a church delegation visiting Syria, has been kidnapped by Islamic fundamentalists, who demand a $100 million ransom for the 75-year-old cleric. Father and son have been a bit at odds, but despite that—or because of it—Jonas has vowed to rescue him. Jonas did work for the MI6, yes, but in a desk job. His tradecraft is thin and contacts are few. Thus does Wolff put Jonas and his exploits in the realm of the doable. He makes decisions and takes actions an ordinary person, as opposed to an espionage superhero, might—a believable, somewhat erratic, and doubt-ridden character, easy to identify with and root for. The story starts in a seedy Beirut bar, where Jonas seeks the help of the middle-aged former priest Tobias, who has previously negotiated the release of terrorist-held hostages. Jonas doesn’t tell him everything, wondering “how it had come to pass unnoticed that deceit had been worn into him like grooves in a record until all he could play were false notes.” Tobias is reluctant to get involved, but he has an interest in a woman named Maryam also stuck in Syria. Jonas says, if he helps, “we’ll get her out.” We? Because this shaky rescue mission has no official standing, he’s unlikely to deliver on this promise, or on any of the commitments he ultimately makes with Hezbollah representatives, the espionage establishment, and anyone else he thinks can help him. You feel you’re mounting a wobbly tower made of playing cards, a fragile edifice that may collapse at any moment. MI6 sends the tennis-playing Desmond Naseby to befriend and spy on Jonas and persuade him to give up his efforts. Naseby is quickly followed by CIA case office Harvey Deng. Deng is all business, aggressive and profane, but Jonas and Naseby banter amusingly. Says Naseby, “You can’t stand to be cooped up. Smell of the sea, bustle of the bazaars.” “Thwack of the tennis racket,” responds Jonas. Edward Snowden taints the narrative like a malevolent spirit when it dawns on MI6 higher-ups that Jonas may have availed himself of some of the secret reports he’s been reading at his desk all those years. When it appears he is trying to trade a USB drive for his father, they give his case the operational name LEAKY PIPE and, well, panic sets in. What keeps the pages turning in this highly entertaining tale, is that, like Jonas’s MI6 and CIA opponents, you can never be quite sure how much he really knows, what his strategy really is, or even if he has one. As a result, the outcome of his dangerous mission might succeed or, as seems much more likely, go disastrously wrong.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Pirate

    Highly original and engrossing to read. Picked it up on spec and delighted I did, it is a pearl of a book nicely-balanced mix of pathos and humour. Principal character Jonas reminds one from time to time of the accidental style heroes of William Boyd but at the heart of it is a very touching character, manipulative but not insensitive only determined to achieve his goal of getting his father out of ISIS's hands. All the characters are beautifully drawn from Tobias to the manic CIA agent, the urb Highly original and engrossing to read. Picked it up on spec and delighted I did, it is a pearl of a book nicely-balanced mix of pathos and humour. Principal character Jonas reminds one from time to time of the accidental style heroes of William Boyd but at the heart of it is a very touching character, manipulative but not insensitive only determined to achieve his goal of getting his father out of ISIS's hands. All the characters are beautifully drawn from Tobias to the manic CIA agent, the urbane gentility of British agent Naseby and the Hezbollah leader he encounters. It all leads up to a cracking ending which of course I am about to reveal......only kidding! Beirut provides a perfect backdrop for the tale, a kind of modern day Lisbon -- from World War II -- filled with spies and double agents as well as home-grown dangerous characters. Intrigued by the description of the author having "worked for the British Givernment for the past 10 years"......indeed wonder in what capacity....some of the anecdotes re intelligence gathering including a rather pathetic or hilarious depending on your point of view re Northern Irish subject perhaps directs one in what department he worked in.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alex Jones

    Having got an advance copy of the 2nd of this trilogy I wanted to read the first book. A thriller set in the Middle East, Wolff has written a very different take on the spy genre with his character Jonas. When his father is taken hostage in Syria whilst working for the church, Jonas who isn’t a spy but works for MI 5 sets out to free his father Steve the uk government refuse to pay the ransom. In Jonas , James Wolff has created a sort of hero but there is lots not to like about Jonas yet still I ro Having got an advance copy of the 2nd of this trilogy I wanted to read the first book. A thriller set in the Middle East, Wolff has written a very different take on the spy genre with his character Jonas. When his father is taken hostage in Syria whilst working for the church, Jonas who isn’t a spy but works for MI 5 sets out to free his father Steve the uk government refuse to pay the ransom. In Jonas , James Wolff has created a sort of hero but there is lots not to like about Jonas yet still I rooted for him. At times he comes across as a bumbling fool yet others he is one step ahead of the most experienced of agents. It starts rather slowly but build pace and story toward the middle and flows well to a superb finale. Plenty of espionage and intrigue to keep the most ardent of spy fans happy, it’s clever, and up to date and an eye opening look at the Middle East and how the foreign governments operate on their territory

  11. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

    This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here. I know that many have found this novel very good, but it really did not engage me. The lead character is, for me, someone I could not relate to. He is firstly a thief ( stealing vital secret documents), then a traitor ( offering to exchange them with terrorists in the Middle East), he has no moral compass and engages the help of 2 innocent people who he then leads into danger and entrapment by terrorists. I just felt that he was unbelievable and deserved everything he got. I managed to finish the I know that many have found this novel very good, but it really did not engage me. The lead character is, for me, someone I could not relate to. He is firstly a thief ( stealing vital secret documents), then a traitor ( offering to exchange them with terrorists in the Middle East), he has no moral compass and engages the help of 2 innocent people who he then leads into danger and entrapment by terrorists. I just felt that he was unbelievable and deserved everything he got. I managed to finish the book, and it certainly was exciting at times, but I just did not find the characters persuading. I do not think that I will be reading the sequel.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jamie Bowen

    I was recommended this book as I’m a love of spy thrillers, but I didn’t really enjoy this. A British Spy’s Father is kidnapped by ISIS , with seemingly no help coming from the British Government, he decides to develop a plan which risks everything. I found the plot confusing on times, some times appearing to go off on flashbacks and future jumps with no warning. The character seemingly on his own, on the run but receiving help from all sides, with no logic behind some of the decisions being mad I was recommended this book as I’m a love of spy thrillers, but I didn’t really enjoy this. A British Spy’s Father is kidnapped by ISIS , with seemingly no help coming from the British Government, he decides to develop a plan which risks everything. I found the plot confusing on times, some times appearing to go off on flashbacks and future jumps with no warning. The character seemingly on his own, on the run but receiving help from all sides, with no logic behind some of the decisions being made. I didn’t particularly warm to the main character Jonas either, I didn’t find myself cheering him on. I was disappointed by the book.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Elle Kay

    I found this spy thriller a little slow at the beginning and a little hard to follow but once it becomes clear who all the players are and the fact that our guy is really making this all up on the fly, the pace quickens, the plot comes together, and I really enjoyed the second half of the book a lot. I especially loved the little details like his adaption of basic tradecraft techniques and his observation skills. A good raw gritty spy novel.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Zeba Clarke

    I am not quite sure why I found this such hard reading, but it felt like a slog. Possibly Jonas, lead character is just not that engaging, possibly the book just feels behind the curve as ISIS has been so curtailed since the book was written. Also, the balance of plotting and backstory/exposition was unwieldy.

  15. 5 out of 5

    M. Lynes

    Promising debut Uneven - stronger on dialogue and characterisation than sense of place or plot. But an interesting voice emerges and I look forward to the next one in the loose trilogy of betrayal and traitors.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Matthew Scott

    I found this book somewhat hard to follow and keep up with. A good story, but quite confusing between following characters, the priest, his father- who I think was also a religious minister. A bit hard to keep up with.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Sharon

    Very very confusing book.. but maybe I am just not that bright!

  18. 5 out of 5

    Nigel

    Some people have found this a difficult read and a bit slow. While I can understand those views, obviously, I disagree . If you’re expecting Bourne or Bond, look elsewhere as this IS a slow burner with little in the way of explosions and gun fights. It is an extremely thoughtful well written novel that will stay with me for a long time.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Rodrigo Acuna

    "Not Bond but son Jonas son." A very entertaining spy story without the usual formulaic, the setting is contemporary, and the paranoia is eternal. Jonas wants to save his father, but the government he works for will not negotiate with terrorist, the dilemma is simple for him, he will rescue him at any cost, you never quite know how far Jonas will go because Jonas is making it up as he goes along. Smart and human, with the cunning use of knowledge and strategy against larger forces, a good read. "Not Bond but son Jonas son." A very entertaining spy story without the usual formulaic, the setting is contemporary, and the paranoia is eternal. Jonas wants to save his father, but the government he works for will not negotiate with terrorist, the dilemma is simple for him, he will rescue him at any cost, you never quite know how far Jonas will go because Jonas is making it up as he goes along. Smart and human, with the cunning use of knowledge and strategy against larger forces, a good read.

  20. 5 out of 5

    maggie earl

  21. 5 out of 5

    Martin

  22. 4 out of 5

    Rosie Hill

  23. 5 out of 5

    Andreas Desyllas

  24. 4 out of 5

    Julian Rees

  25. 4 out of 5

    Armand

  26. 5 out of 5

    tim hayes

  27. 5 out of 5

    Nathan

  28. 5 out of 5

    Hakan

  29. 4 out of 5

    maurice bostel

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tracey

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