He Said/She Said, by Erin Kelly

Eight stars

In a book that has garnered much attention on Goodreads, Erin Kelly treats the reader to a unique spin on an oft presented scenario. Splitting the story between an evolving past narrative and one set in 2015, Kelly leaves the reader unsure where to focus much of their attention. A complete solar eclipse is days away, which has Kit making all the last-minute preparations for an event he has marvelled seeing since 1991. Less excited is his wife, Laura, who is six months pregnant with twins. Their joint concern is not the crowds or the sun’s glare, but the potential sighting of ‘Beth’, who appears to be stalking them. It is only as the story progresses that the reader learns of events that transpired at the eclipse of 1999, where Laura came upon Beth and Jamie Balcombe, engaged in some primal sexual encounter. Laura was sure it was rape and alerted the authorities of this, while Jamie did all he can to convince her otherwise. Beth remained silent, though Laura would not let the victim’s state of shock allow a rapist to roam free. With the evidence collected, the matter was brought to trial, where Laura testified that she heard a faint ‘no’ uttered during the encounter. Balcombe presented a defence that it was only a rough sexual encounter, but completely consensual. After the trial and a guilty verdict, Kit and Laura found Beth showing up at their flat and trying to forge a friendship while supporters of Balcombe do all they could to smear the victim through any means necessary. Laura had to come to terms with what she saw, Kit stood by her, and Beth accepts nothing less than total belief that she was a victim in all this. With brief glimpses into the present, Kit violates the cardinal rule of staying off the radar, which begins a series of events that could have dire consequences. As the narrative picks up momentum, the reader learns more about eclipses, both solar and character, which flavours the story and offers many twists that take the story in unexpected directions. An entertaining psychological thriller that provides readers with a chilling view into the power of perception. Worth a read, even if the hype might be a little overdone.

I had heard and seen much about this over the past while and thought I would take up the recommendation of a friend of mine to give it a whirl. Kelly offers the reader some interesting perspectives as it comes to character development, building a persona in both the past and present simultaneously. The central cast develops and regresses throughout, depending on the perspective used. This forces the reader to balance everything before making a final determination on guilt or innocence. Using the solar eclipse, both literal and metaphorical, serves to present the reader with the essential aspects of the story, whereby the characters shine at moments and scurry away to hide at others. However, once all is revealed, there is an anti-climactic moment and a rush to understand what has just happened. Kelly builds the narrative up throughout and keeps the reader wondering, but also serves up large twists at just the right moment to turn the story on its head. This shows not only superior skill but also pulls the reader in and leaves them wanting more, even when the road ahead is, seemingly, free from any more surprises. 

If I might offer a single criticism that I feel jolted me out of the smooth delivery, it would be the use of legal terms during the trial portion of the book. Kelly flips between British and American legal terminology at will. While this might not disrupt the reader’s attention span, it left me confused and returning to double check the jargon, where I noticed the repeated error. Perhaps during the subsequent re-release of the book these erroneous phrases will be tightened up and the proofreaders scolded. 

Kudos, Madam Kelly for putting together this wonderful piece. I found myself enthralled at certain points and begging for more at others.

It Can’t be October Already: A Short Story, by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jeffrey Archer, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Lord Jeffrey Archer continues to prove that he is a wordsmith, showing off those skills in this wonderfully succinct piece. Patrick O’Flynn is caught red-handed as he is in the midst of committing a crime one October night. O’Flynn seems to be well-known to the authorities, all of whom wonder if it can, again, be October. As he is taken in and processed, O’Flynn continues to greet those who know him well. A brief encounter with the courts earn him six months in jail, which seems to play into the larger plan that he has concocted already. After he is sent off the Belmarsh, O’Flynn reveals his larger plan to his cellmate, at which time it all makes sense. Quick witted throughout this short piece, Archer keeps the reader guessing through to the ‘aha’ moment. Perfect for a coffee break and sure to impress a cross-section of readers.

I remain impressed with the work Lord Archer produces (or resurrects) at the drop of a hat. He has a way of pulling the reader in from the early pages and not letting up until the final phrase lingers in the air. While there is little time for character development, Archer does present enough backstory for the reader to feel some connection to O’Flynn. From there, it is the short back and forth as the narrative builds through to the end, where Archer injects his notable twist. Any reader who loves a full novel by this English master will adore the short stories that keep things light and highly entertaining. Well worth the invested time and effort.

Kudos, Lord Archer for this wonderful piece. I look forward to all you have going on and sketched out for future publications. 

The Chosen One, by Carol Lynch Williams

Eight stars

Carol Lynch Williams touches on a topic about which I have read a great deal over the past few months; a young woman trapped in a religious organisation. Writing this novella seemingly geared for the young adult population, Williams turns the focus onto a polygamous community and the plural wives mentality that turns innocent teenage girls into matrimonial dolls for the elders. Kyra Leigh Carlson is thirteen and has lived her entire life in a strict religious community, enveloped by the polygamist mentality. When the Prophet arrives one day to decree that she will marry one of the Apostles, her Uncle Hyrum, Kyra is beside herself with worry. Merely a girl, she has many of the typical feelings that a young person possesses: longing to grow-up, hoping to have innocent crushes, and discovering herself. Her eyes are by no means focussed on Hyrum, but turn, instead to a boy her own age, Joshua. The admiration seems mutual, though Kyra knows that she only has four weeks to get out of this mess before she becomes a child bride. Kyra’s only concrete contact with the outside world is through a mobile library, driven by a well-meaning young man, Patrick. Books that have been banned by the Prophet show her a world about which Kyra can only dream and freedom she knows she will never taste. The Chosen One by many, Kyra’s heart and mind must work in tandem to decide which she will follow. Physical abuse and banishment are only two of the many possible ways to keep those who stray from repeating their sin. Faced with a decision, Kyra knows that there is only one way out, but that choice could cost her everything she knows. A powerful story, Williams paints a realistic (from what I have read) version of the struggles inside polygamist sects ruled by fundamentalist Christianity.

A requested buddy read, I was not sure how I would stomach a young adult approach to the subject. I tend to find YA more interested in romanticizing the message and failing to penetrate to the core. However, Williams does a stellar job not to pull any punches (pardon the pun) by exemplifying just how far some of these groups will go to weed out errant thought. Further to this, there is the ongoing issue of pre-destined marriage that pervades the sect, both in the news and from those who have fled its confines. One cannot dismiss these as totally off the wall or without some merit and Williams does not shy away from revealing it as the foundation of her argument throughout. The characters within the story are top-notch and provide the reader with a realistic and varied sense of approaches to the theme. The narrative is crisp and yet what one might expect from a teenager at the helm, directing the story into corners that they might find important. Williams encapsulates the angst and struggle of a teenage girl faced with losing all she has ever hoped to find in life, as well as the fight for freedom, if only to define herself outside of what some prophet might decree.

Kudos, Madam Williams for getting to the root of this matter and presenting something for a younger audience. It was brilliantly portrayed and I am sure you will garner many fans for this and anything else you publish.

Never Stop on the Motorway: A Short Story, by Jeffrey Archer

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Jeffrey Archer, and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Lord Jeffrey Archer has made a name for himself, with spellbinding novels spanning over three decades. He has also proven to be equally talented when it comes to the short story, as is exemplified in this electronic republication of a past piece. Diana is a successful divorced mother of two, who enjoys life whenever possible. During her only childless weekend, she accepts an invitation to a country getaway. After a brief delay, Diana dodges commuter traffic and hopes to make up for lost time. However, she is soon being followed by a large van she cannot shake, its headlights glaring into her rearview mirror. No matter what she does, Diana is unable to lose this crazed driver, who follows her when she executes the most Bond-like driving off the A1. As panic sets in, Diana recollects some recent police alert about a serial rapist who has been targeting single women on the road. With this madman on her bumper, will she be the next victim? Archer weaves a wonderful story that keeps the reader on edge for the short time they are enveloped in this piece. Perfect for that coffee or lunch break, with just enough thrill to keep the heart pumping rapidly.

In all the years I have been reading Lord Jeffrey Archer, I have yet to be underwhelmed. His stories are always full of intrigue and he hashes out his characters with ease. In a short story, it is essential to pull the reader in and have them connect to the character, which Archer does as he spins the backstory needed to feel for Diana. From there, it is the swift development of the plot and some of the subplots that keep the reader pushing forward. Archer has that mastered here, leaving the reader to wonder about this mysterious van driver and how far things will go, even as Diana has her destination in sight. As with many Archer pieces, the end is where it all comes together, pushing the protagonist to the limits before injecting a wonderful twist. This is Archer at his best, bar none.

Kudos, Lord Archer for this wonderful piece, which I cannot remember reading in the past. You have such a way with words and I can only hope you will continue churing out masterful pieces for many years to come.

The Lucky Ones, by Mark Edwards

NIne stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Mark Edwards, and Thomas & Mercer for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Yet another powerful thriller from the mind of Mark Edwards, pulling the reader into the middle of a serial killer’s rampage, fuelled by an interesting justification. DI Imogen Evans is on the hunt for the Shropshire Viper, someone who has been injecting victims with morphine. While the investigation intensifies, Evans learns of an odd connection between the three victims; something that could blow the case wide open. Is there a degree of ‘luck’ or ‘happiness’ tied to these killings, for both the killer and the victim? In a parallel narrative, Ben Holland has been struggling as a single father, back in the village of his youth. Raising his son, Ollie, and trying to begin divorce proceedings, Ben has been unable to find his niche as he struggled to redefine himself. With the Viper in the area, Ben is forced to confront his estranged wife, Megan, and her new beau, a glitzy television presenter. How will it all play out and does someone have a little ‘luck’ that they might be able to pass along to Ben, under the right circumstances? In this crime thriller that pulls the readers in many directions, Edwards shows how he has earned the reputation of being a fabulous writer. Perfect for those who want to up their heart rate and ponder where the killer might be lying in wait.

I have always found Mark Edwards to be at the top of his game and this novel only further exemplifies that. Working with this one-off novel, the key is to create characters who are both easy to explore and fast to present their backstories. Pair that with the ever-evolving storyline of a murder investigation and the reader is required to juggle a great deal and keep names straight in short order. Edwards writes in such a way that this is no impediment to the larger narrative and the reader is hooked by everything that is going on. Through the interesting technique of random chapters told through the eyes of the killer, the reader is able to discern a few key elements of the crime and crawl inside to better understand the ‘lucky’ mindset that might be feeling these murders. With a wonderful mix of short and longer chapters, the reader hangs on every word and utilises the cliffhanger moments to propel themselves towards the end, unsure how they were able to finish so quickly. Once Edwards has the reader in his grasp, there is no letting go, until the final sentence. Even then, there is an eerie quality of ‘what if’ that keeps the reader pondering. Stellar work by one who has earned the right to call himself great!

Kudos, Mr. Edwards for another wonderful thriller. How you come up with so many wonderful ideas leaves me baffled, but please do not stop. I can see scores of new fans flocking to you once they get their hands on this piece.

16th Seduction (Women’s Murder Club #16), by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro

Seven stars

Another piece that shows that Patterson knows how to choose some of his co-authors to produce entertaining writing. Working alongside Maxine Paetro to craft sixteen novels in the Women’s Murder Club, Patterson has been able to present high-impact writing peppered with some interesting legal and criminal angles. The world is beset with a new terrorist organisation, loosely called GAR, the Great Antiestablishment Reset, happy to wreak havoc at every turn. San Francisco is not immune, which leaves Sergeant Lindsay Boxer on high alert. After agreeing to see her estranged husband, Joe, they take a stroll close to Sci-Tron, the city’s science museum. An explosion rocks and destroys the building. Soon thereafter, Boxer overhears a man claim responsibility, almost unable to believe her own ears. After arresting him, this Connor Grant denies ever saying anything about being culpable and he is sent to trial for murdering twenty-five innocent people and injuring many more, including Joe. While Boxer braces for what is surely a major situation, Yuki Castellano, the lawyer of the Murder Club, assumes second chair in this major trial, pitting the wily District Attorney against Grant, who has chosen to represent himself. The trial is harrowing and far from a slam-dunk, leaving the verdict in the hands of the twelve-member jury. Meanwhile, Dr. Claire Washburn, the city’s Chief Medical Examiner (and, of course, another of the Club’s members) contacts Sergeant Boxer about a mysterious string of deaths, originally attributed to heart conditions. Further investigation shows that the deaths are connected by a strange injection in the buttocks that each victim exhibits. Could there be someone in San Francisco injecting people with some unknown narcotic? As the reader discovers, one Neddie Lambo is on the loose, playing up his detention in a psychiatric facility, but actually plotting a number of these random killings to feed his need for control. All this while Cindy Thomas is getting the inside scoop and reporting the news garnered from her fellow Club members, sometimes without their knowledge and consent. How will San Francisco survive all this and can Boxer rise above an Internal Affairs investigation for her actions as they relate to the Sci-Tron bombing? Patterson and Paetro offer an explosive ending to this sixteenth instalment to the series. A great story for series fans and sure to attract some new readers who have a penchant for quick read stories.

There is something about the Women’s Murder Club that has always kept me on the edge of my seat. While Patterson has stumbled at times, even with key authors around him, the annual return to this series keeps me believing that there is something worthwhile left in the author (the least of which is surely not Paetro’s involvement). The stories are poignant and while the mysteries are not always complex or psychologically thrilling, they move at a quick pace and keep the story from going stale. The strong central cast of characters continue to evolve and there is always a interesting flavour to the one-offs, particularly the criminal element. Patterson and Paetro always leave room for ‘just one more’, be it a chapter before bed or a new book in the series, fostering an ongoing hunger in the reader. Those short chapters propel the reader forward and can, like me, leave them wondering how they polished the book off in a single day. Surely not foundational work in the genre, but a wonderful escape that keeps pace with the swiftness the outside world has to offer. 

Kudos, Mr. Patterson and Madame Paetro for another great novel. I always look forward to what the annual revelation of the Women’s Murder Club will bring and you have not let me down.

Defending Jacob, by William Landay

Nine stars

Having received a strong recommendation to read this book, I was curious to see what William Landay might have in store for the reader. Not for the weak of heart, the story offers the reader much to consider as they manoeuvre through this stellar work. The small community of Newton, Massachusetts is put on edge with the murder of Ben Rifkin. A teenager at the local middle school, Rifkin was known to be somewhat of a bully, happy to toss aside those who might be different. Andrew ‘Andy’ Barber takes up the initial murder investigation as one of the ADAs, turning his attention on a local paedophile with lives in the area. However, Jacob Barber becomes a person of interest and is eventually arrested and charged with the murder, which pushes Andy out of a job and onto the sidelines as he scrambles to prove his son’s innocence. Forced to wrap his head around what might have happened, Andy turns to examining Jacob’s life under a microscope. What he discovers is the extensive cruelty that youths inflict on one another, be it verbally or hidden behind the veil of social media. There is also the possibility that a genetic predisposition (read: The Warrior Gene) could be at play, forcing Andy to explore his past and bring some less than pleasant aspects to the surface, all which trying to keep his family together as his wife doubts their son’s innocence. Whatever happens, when the case goes to trial, Andy can do nothing but hone his focus… on defending Jacob. Question is, will it be enough? A thought-provoking story that Landay tells in a masterful fashion. Perfect for the reader who wishes to be enveloped in a small-town legal struggle that digs deeper and pushes the limits at every turn.

William Landay’s work is new to me, but rest assured I will be back for more. The story, be it steeped in fact or completely fictitious, is full of intrigue and paced in such a way that the reader cannot help but want to know more. The list of characters work well and are depicted as close to realistically as possible, from teenage choppy-linguistic portrayals, to the profanity-laden diatribes of prisoners, and even the smooth legalese that lawyers offer in the middle of trial. Landay explores this case from all angles and takes the reader into the middle, though offers a clear flaw, by using Andy Barber as the narrator. This entire process is digested and then regurgitated through the eyes of a disbelieving father, which flavours the story in a wonderful way, jading things from the start. Andy has his own demons about which he is not proud, though he refuses to turn his only child into yet another notch on his family tree trunk. The law, the social struggles, and the angst that a family feels all emerge throughout the story, keeping the reader hooked and Landay in complete control of the story through to the final page twist. If this is Landay’s typical story format, I can see myself offering more praise of his work in the months to come.

Kudos, Mr. Landay for such a raw and insightful piece. You have such a way with words and presentation that I am sure scores of other readers will soon discover the superior quality of your work.

Half-Built Houses, by Eric Keller

Eight stars

First and foremost, thank you to Eric Keller for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

The next book on my independent author list included a courtroom drama with a twist. Set in Calgary, I hoped not only to become enveloped in the story, but also see some of the random mentions of my current city of residence. Charley Ewanuschuk has had a hard life, having been bullied throughout his youth in small-town Alberta before he was shipped to the big city by a less than loving mother. On an especially frigid winter night, Charley witnesses a woman being strangled before her body is left in the snow. Fleeing his squatter’s residence, Charley runs off before his conscience eventually leads him to Legal Aid. Seeking some legal advice as he knows he will somehow be a person of interest, Charley tells his outlandish story to struggling lawyer, Brian Cox. When the police come to investigate, they find clues that point to Charley’s potential involvement and he is eventually charged with the murder of Natalie Peterson. Turning mute, Charley is uncooperative, which leaves Cox to try piecing together a defence based on the shaky story he was told that first night. Meanwhile, Hugh Young lurks in the shadows, a successful businessman whose considerable wealth has become beneficial when it comes to cleaning up the messes left by his son, Jason. This time, Jason’s assault and murder of Natalie have forced Hugh to pull out all the stops. As long as Jason can remain calm and only answer the questions put to him, there is a chance that this homeless man, Charley, will be found guilty. However, as certain aspects of Jason’s narrative prove shaky, Cox receives new hope, but is it enough? A compelling story with a thorough legal plot, perfect for those who love seeing the courtroom in all its glory. 

When Keller reached out to me, he used the lure of Calgary to pique my interest. After starting the book, I would other aspects that had me hooked as well. I found the use of Calgary to be quite intriguing, peppering landmarks and street names throughout the story, though it was not a central focus of the narrative. Keller shows his superior ability to craft realistic characters who present themselves as both unique and yet believable in this type of story, which adds momentum as the story’s pace quickens. The reader learns much about the backstory of Charley Ewanuschuk, the determination of Brian Cox, and the slimy presentation of Jason Young, as well as the other characters that hold the larger story together flawlessly. Many writers will tell a legal thriller by showing the crime and how the authorities will pursue individuals until the accused can be found and (sometimes) sentenced for the crime. However, Keller takes things further, detailing the crime, the investigation, and then the courtroom developments, including the banter between Crown and Defence attorneys as they examine witnesses on the stand, all while not losing some of the out-of-court struggles that befall both sides during trial. Keller’s understanding of the Canadian legal process is notable and he paces the story perfectly without drowning the reader in minutiae. A powerful novel that tells multiple stories within its pages, Keller is certainly an author worth noting as the reader hopes to see more writing in the years to come. 

Kudos, Mr. Keller for this wonderful debut novel. Your writing style is refreshing and injects much life into the genre. I trust another legal thriller is in the works, taking us back to the gritty streets of Calgary.

The Black Book, by James Patterson and David Ellis

Eight stars

James Patterson has again teamed up with David Ellis, offering a wonderful standalone thriller that keeps readers on the edge of their seats and up late into the night. In a narrative set in the ‘past’, Billy Harney and Kate Fenton are hardworking members of Homicide in Chicago. While tailing a suspect, Harney makes the decision to raid a brownstone, which opens up a new and troublesome revelation; this is a brothel visited by the city’s rich and powerful men. During the raid, a ‘little black book’ goes missing, with names that could bring even more of the rich and famous to their knees or serve as strong blackmail fodder. All eyes turn to Harney, who must try to clear his name, when it is presumed he pocketed it. As Fenton begins a power struggle with her partner, Harney must find out who is trying to frame him, adamant that he knows nothing of the book. With the case against the defendants caught in the raid fast approaching, Harney works with a hot-shot prosecutor, Amy Lentini, to ensure his testimony is flawless. Her icy exterior soon melts and she turns up the heat with Harney, which only clouds both their judgements. In a parallel narrative, set in the ‘present’, Harney is found naked, in bed with Lentini, while Detective Fenton lays on the floor. All three have been shot and the two women are dead, with Harney clinging to life and a bullet lodged in his skull. As the story continues, it appears Harney is being blamed for the murder, unable to remember anything from the past as it relates to the lead-up to the shooting or anything he may have learned about the black book. As the reader braces for an ever-evolving rollercoaster ride, the story takes twists and turns with everything centred around a list of names and the people will do anything to hold all the power. A powerful thriller that shows Patterson has the ability to rise to the occasion, with the right author at the helm. Highly recommended to any who enjoy losing themselves in quality writing.

I have often said that James Patterson’s writing has waned in the past few years, his lustre buried under many mediocre novels. However, when David Ellis comes to partner, their cooperation produces stellar writing and offers the reader a literary treat. While it may be a standalone, the novel offers an array of superior characters, wonderfully crafted to push the narrative forward without getting caught up in the minutiae. Working with the parallel narratives, Patterson and Ellis keep the reader guessing, while forcing a constant mental gear switch as the story develops, layering a revealed past with a present that is just as murky. If the reader can handle this mix, they are in for a punch to the gut during the numerous plot twists, which only adds the the overall flavour of the piece. Dark, but peppered with some dry humour to keep the reader smiling, Patterson and Ellis know the perfect recipe for a fast-paced thriller.

Kudos, Messrs. Patterson and Ellis for joining forces again and showing that there is never an end to your abilities. I know I am in for a treat when your names grace the cover and hope to see more of your collaborative efforts soon.

Matchup, edited by Lee Child

NIne stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Lee Child (editor), and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy of this book, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

When asked to take the editorial lead in the latest International Thriller Writers (ITW) anthology, Lee Child jumped at the opportunity. What might be daunting for some–herding twenty-two well-known authors together like feral cats–turned out to be a great pleasure for Child and, in the end, the reader. This compilation pits writers into teams of two to concoct a wonderful series of short stories. Each author was asked to bring their ‘A’ game and a favourite protagonist, in hopes that having to share the page (and the locale of each story), which ended up being a little more difficult than simply parachuting characters together. Child’s other hurdle was to place a male and female author together, a ‘matchup’ of epic proportions, to see how they could work together. The end result saw readers treated to the ‘what if’ of forensic anthropologist Tempe Brennan working alongside ever-travelling Jack Reacher; bibliophile Cotton Malone living history and the standing stones through which Claire Randall met her beloved in Scotland; and Philly lawyer, Bennie Rosato, crossing paths with the King of Sarcastic Comments, John Corey. Where else would you find a Minnesota cop who wants to fish in the middle of a major crime bust at a cabin in Montana, or a woman who speaks to the dead through their buried bones outside of Alexandria? Child is able not only to find the ideal matches for this anthology, but also sends the reader into a tailspin as they are presented with a number of never before thought-out possible storylines. Child is masterful, though a great deal of praise must go to all who took the time and effort to pen eleven wonderful stories. Surely something of a summer gift for the reader to enjoy poolside.

I have always enjoyed collections such as these, especially when the ITW gang comes out to play. There are so many out there and since the genre is so wide, one is never entirely sure what to expect. Child presents these stories in no particularly themed order, but the end result turns out to be something that is high octane from start to finish. While I tend to gravitate to the crime and legal thrillers, there are many that push outside of my comfort zone, though I cannot find a single story that did not captivate me, even when the narrative flirted with the paranormal. I have a large ‘to be read’ list, but reading these stories has left me wondering if I ought to check out some new authors and their characters, as they intrigued me, even during the brief encounter of a short story. Pitting sub-genres against one another and character professions that were sure to clash, these authors ironed out the difficulties and left the reader with a polished product, perfectly balanced and ready for easy literary consumption. While I could have read these stories for hundreds of more pages, I realise that there is a limit to the number of submissions and authors used, though I am eager to see what is next for the ITW in the years to come.

Kudos, Mr. Child, et al. for such a great anthology. I am hooked to these collections and love the cross-section of story writer that emerges from these classic matchups. Please keep sharpening your skills for the next editorial call out that is sure to arise.