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Need to Know

In Karen Cleveland's accomplished first novel, Need to Know, Vivian is the working mom of four children under eight, trying to balance maternal guilt with professional ambition. Fortunately, her love-at-first-sight husband of 10 years is a software engineer with flexible hours and a home office. Matt gets the kids off to school and daycare, rounds up groceries, prepares meals and does the before-bed reading.

But there are a few kinks in this seemingly satisfying life: one of their infant twins has an expensive congenital heart problem; the overpriced house they bought in Bethesda, Md., has them financially strapped; and Vivian is a veteran CIA counterintelligence analyst about to bust open a Russian sleeper cell with her own innovative algorithm. But her hack into a Russian handler's laptop reveals that one of his longtime agents is unquestionably her husband, Matt.

With eight years of experience in the CIA, Cleveland knows the ins and outs of its clandestine mysteries. More Robert Ludlum than John le Carré, Need to Know is cinematic rather than cerebral (a film starring Charlize Theron is said to be under development). Despite its nonstop plot and what-can-go-wrong-next intrigue, Need to Know is at heart a story of a family coming apart under the shadow of subterfuge and fear. Vivian's struggle is as much with untangling her relationship with Matt as it is with uncovering a spy ring.

As Cleveland accelerates the action from covert digital snooping to overt violence, Vivian becomes a mama bear protecting her cubs. Need to Know is for those who clamber into the front car of a roller coaster waving their arms and lusting for the next gut-sucking, high-speed drop. --Bruce Jacobs, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.