Snap Judgment (Samantha Brinkman #3), by Marcia Clark

Eight stars

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

Marcia Clark is back with the third instalment of the Samantha Brinkman series, perhaps the best novel yet. After Alicia Hutchins is tired of her controlling boyfriend, Roan Sutton, she chooses to dump him to relieve herself of the burden. In an act of apparent retribution, naked selfies of Alicia appear online for all to see. This ‘revenge porn’ puts Alicia in a tailspin and her body is found a short time later. Might Roan have taken the next step and killed the young woman who sought to defy him? It would appear so, though the ante is raised yet again, after Roan’s body is discovered a short time later, hanging from the ceiling. Early conclusions point to suicide, but Alicia’s father, Graham, is being eyed by the police as the case could have a homicidal element. Enter Samantha Brinkman, whose criminal work has earned her quite the reputation. Brinkman agrees to take on the case, loving the price tag that goes along with it, and tries to delve even deeper into the investigation. Working alongside her investigator, Alex Medrano, Brinkman begins to peel back the layers of the case, unsure what they will find. Alicia seemed to have been a sheltered young woman who was finally coming out of her shell while interacting with other college students. Could Roan and his controlling ways have been used on other women before Alicia? Might the revenge porn angle be one that he has used before? As questions about the case continue to emerge, Brinkman is visited one night by a man with deep roots in the cartel community. He’s come to call in on a favour that Brinkman has promised him after she was caught breaking the law for another client. Brinkman has been ordered to find a witness who is in protective custody, ready to finger a member of this elusive man’s family. Unable to turn to Alex, who is unaware of Brinkman’s law breaking, she turns to her father, Dale Pearson. Together, they must grease the wheels to find this young woman, whose life story brings up more dirt than either could have imagined. Tales of abuse and molestation, with a handful of younger sisters still at home, Brinkman finds pity for the woman in custody and will do whatever she can to protect her from the death that awaits her once she has been outed by the cartel. Working these two major cases and a slew of other meat and potatoes, Brinkman has little time for herself. Trouble is, there is a time limit on both and patience is not a virtue anyone seems to have for the time being. A wonderfully crafted piece of work that will keep the reader guessing until the very end. Highly recommended for legal thriller fans and those who enjoy the fast-paced writing that makes Clark a master of the genre.

Whatever people seem to feel about Clark in her past life, she has shown that she has the ability to craft excellent legal thrillers that do not miss a beat. Filled with relatable storylines and themes that could easier pulled from the headlines, Clark pulls the reader in from the opening paragraphs and provides enough drama to keep them hooked until the very end. Samantha Brinkman is both a complex and easily relatable character. Not only is she a lawyer with a solid reputation, but she is keen on fighting for her clients and will leave no stone unturned. Her jaded past has not left her defeated, but fuels her to find the best in everyone, or at least to see past their outer layers. She remains determined to discover the whole story, even if it places her clients in an uncomfortable position. Surrounding herself with the likes of Alex and Michy, her office runs effectively and her caseload is anything but boring. A recently discovered father in Dale Pearson has helped her find someone in whom she can feel familial pride, though their relationship is anything but traditional parent-child. Clark injects secondary characters who keep the story moving forward and fuel interesting twists to keep the reader curious throughout. The story takes legal and personal turns that no only make for a great story but are plausible, permitting the reader to feel at home as they lose themselves in the book. Clark’s legal past and blunt delivery help create a story that has everything needed for a superior legal thriller. I cannot wait to see what else Clark has is store for her readers and where she will take Brinkman in the years to come. And the question that I have been asking for a while now, when will Rachel Knight ever make an appearance in Samantha’s life?

Kudos, Madam Clark for another wonderful novel. I am amazed at how thoroughly captivated I am by everything you write. I know you have a large following, and for good reason! 

A Criminal Defense, by William L. Myers, Jr.

Nine stars

Exploring the world of William L. Myers, Jr., I had hoped to be dazzled by his skills and dedication to the genre. Legal thrillers are a dime a dozen, but well-crafted ones are much harder to come by. Mick McFarland is a gritty Philadelphia lawyer trying to make the world a better place, one case at a time. However, he is in private practice, so his clients must also have the money to pay for his expert legal advice. While handling some meat and potatoes casework, a stunning bit of news hits the wire; a well-known investigative journalist, Jennifer Yamura has been found at the bottom of her stairs, dead. What’s worse, McFarland’s long-time friend, wealthy businessman David Hanson, was seen by the police fleeing out the back door. After being retained, McFarland starts in damage control mode, learning that Hanson is clear in his innocence, but that there was a sexual relationship in play with Yamura. However, early discussions and evidence points to the fact that Hanson could well have killed Yamura, or was at least in the house with her dead body and had been cleaning up any sign of his presence. McFarland goes into pitbull mode, but must stay one step ahead of his client and three of the salivating District Attorney’s Office, where senior ADA Devlin Walker has his eye on burying Hanson. While the case is progressing and heading towards a trial, McFarland must face a number of personal struggles involving various members of his family: a wife whose family is money rich but cannot see past their country club lifestyle, and a brother who is now the firm’s investigator, but who harbours a past filled with less than savoury decisions. As guilt exudes from Hanson’s pores, McFarland must trust that his friend is telling the truth and that he is innocent of murder. Could Yamura’s flashy news reports on dirty cops have met with retribution? Might there be another jealous lover who wanted her out of the way? Or, worst of all, might Hanson be colluding with others to cover-up this crime and lying to McFarland at every turn? Whatever the answers, McFarland will stop at nothing to craft ‘a criminal defense’. A stunning legal thriller that mixes all the ingredients to deliver a story that will keep the reader hooked until the bitter end, and what a twist awaits there! Myers is surely an author who knows how to connect with his audience and deliver a realistic account of life in criminal law.

This being his debut novel, I had to use this book as my first impressions of Myers. It serves as a wonderful starting point and the legal nuances embedded into the story keep the reader engaged. Myers is able to create a wonderful set of characters, developing them as the narrative builds. Mick McFarland is surely a lawyer of note, whose work ethic and personal foibles make for a highly entertaining protagonist. Myers develops him in many ways and does not shy away from offering the good, the bad, and the ugly, though not in equal measure. Branching out from there, Myers fills the story with a wonderful cross-section of legal minds, money-grubbing business folk, and those who see themselves as above the fray. Peppering them throughout the narrative allows the story to mutate into something more than a courtroom drama, as lives are placed in the balance. Myers is also keen on showing that a lawyer’s work is never tied to a single case, forcing a precarious juggling act to keep a firm afloat. McFarland is forced not only to deal with clients, but also other lawyers and shady witnesses, in hopes of providing the best defense that money can buy. Myers shows that his first foray into the genre has been a great success and I cannot wait for his follow-up, another standalone, out in the early part of 2018.

Kudos, Mr. Myers for such a wonderful opening salvo into the world of cutthroat readers and reviewers. Your legal know-how will surely propel you to the top of the pack, given time and great word of mouth.

The Late Show (Renée Ballard #1), by Michael Connelly

Eight stars

As if he did not have enough on his plate, Michael Connelly has decided to launch a new series (or at least a standalone) that takes a new approach to policing, still in the busy city of Los Angeles. Renée Ballard is a well-established detective with the LAPD, working the ‘late show’, police talk for the 11pm-7am shift. It’s mostly picking up the scraps of the nightlife and directing cases to daytime divisions, but police work all the same. Called out whenever the need arises, Ballard is left without closure or any sense of propriety on the cases she catches. Working alongside a jaded partner, Ballard is forced to contain her excitement for the cases that come her way. During a single shift, two monumental cases land in her lap: the assault of a transgender prostitute, left for dead in a parking lot, and a shooting at a nightclub with three victims left to die in their own blood. Ballard chases up leads as best she can, in hopes of being able to see something through and bring some closure for herself. While chasing down some evidence on the assault, Ballard learns that the victim has odd marking on his body, as if there might be words embedded in the flesh. Could this be the work of someone using a less than typical weapon? Meanwhile, at the club, the shooting appears to be a form of ‘house cleaning’ with the suspected shooter likely known to the three victims. Just as Ballard is trying to liaise with the day shift and move on from the shooting, some evidence pointing to a fellow cop emerges. Worse, it could be her former partner, who hung her out to dry. While trying to confront him, Ballard discovers that he has been shot. Could this be yet another act of senseless violence in a city where gunfire competes with cricket chirps? While wrestling with her own personal demons, Ballard is taken captive for poking her nose around on these cases, but no one knows she’s gone missing. Will the lights go out for Ballard on the late show once and for all? Perfect for those who have come to love the Bosch series, Connelly flavours this book with just as much energy, though differentiates it in numerous regards.

When I heard that Connelly intended on beginning a new series, I was not sure how well it would go, as he was so very busy. My worry intensified (I know, I worry about things I cannot control) when I discovered it would be another cop series, thinking that it might be a female Bosch or, worse yet, one in which the main character stayed on the narrow path. However, Connelly has been able to craft the Renée Ballard character to reflect the same grit of the LAPD, but with strong differentiations from the(in)famous detective. Ballard offers readers an interesting perspective, not only as a woman, but one who is single and not tied down to anyone else, save her dog. Having met her fair share of issues on the job, Ballard has had to make a name for herself and, at times, reinvent the person she wants to be on a force that still seeks to shuffle her to the side. Working that night shift makes her seem like a paper pusher and set-up for the glorious day shifts, who are able to score all the points and win glory at every turn. However, Connelly offers enough in this character that the reader can, at times, forget that and focus on wonderful police work. The story is strong and keeps the reader hooked, juggling a few cases simultaneously. While it is impossible to dream up new and exciting new angles to the crimes of the L.A. streets, Connelly chooses cases that can expand as the narrative explores the darker sides to the underworld. Keeping things realistic and succinct, Connelly is able to tell his story and utilize his characters effectively, while not getting too far-fetched. With almost two dozen Bosch novels to his name and a genre that is saturated with crimes in the big city, Connelly has been forced to show how Renée Ballard is not only unique, but also deserves a spot on the scene. I am eager to see when and where she will make her next appearance, as Connelly has a sure winner here.

Kudos, Mr. Connelly for a wonderful teaser novel to get the reader curious. Admittedly, I cannot remember reading about Ballard before in your writing, but I wonder if you have any hopes of bringing Haller or Bosch in to liaise at some point, should this book take off and lead to a larger series.

Dead Drop (Jericho Quinn #7.5), by Marc Cameron

Eight stars

Marc Cameron is back with a short story/novella addition to the Jericho Quinn series, with a summer-themed piece perfect for the beach. After a harrowing meeting with POTUS, Jericho Quinn and Jacques Thibodaux have agreed to take their respective families to the Buccaneer Beach Thrill Park, home of the Dead Drop waterslide. Soon after arriving, an explosion rocks the Park, leaving many hurt and thousands fleeing for cover. Separated from their loved ones, Quinn and Thibodaux seek to neutralize the situation in an intelligent and tactical manner, while also learning as much as they can about the perpetrators. It would appear that a group of teenagers fuelled by religious zeal has turned the Park into a terror zone, but for what reason? As time slowly advances, Quinn must find his daughter before she is injured in the crossfire, but there are many more who rely on his fast thinking. Led by a young man with nothing to lose, this terror cell hopes to cause as much havoc before the authorities arrive. However, no one thought to tell Quinn and Thibodaux of this little beach party. A worthwhile standalone for the curious reader, but also highly enjoyable for those who have long been fans of Cameron and his fearless Jericho Quinn.

Marc Cameron is always on his game when writing about Jericho Quinn. While the genre is super-saturated with men (and women) ready to save the world one gunfight at a time, there is something about Quinn that individualises him. It might be that every story is strongly weighted with a family aspect, which occurs in this piece as Cameron allows both Quinn’s family (daughter, Mattie, and girlfriend Veronica ‘Ronnie’ Garcia) and members of the Thibodaux collective (sons Shawn and Dan, alongside wife, Camille) to play more than a wallflower role. There is little room for character development between Jericho and Jacques, but the reader is able to learn a little more about some of the aforementioned characters. Additionally, there is the handful of ‘terrorists’ who play villain roles in the story. I am of two minds about this depiction. Cameron has fallen into the stereotype of Muslim extremists (front and centre in the aforementioned super-saturated genre), but does take a step back and inject some blowback when certain passing characters make blatant generalizations about Muslims or Arabic people. It is here that Cameron at least partially redeems himself, perhaps trying to step away from the ‘Muslim as whipping boy’ mentality that has been overused at least since September 13, 2001. The summer theme of the story is perfect and brings even more realism tied to its release. Now then, I have had my Quinn fix, though I am not sure I can wait until February, though I will have to try. 

Kudos, Mr. Cameron for another jam-packed thriller. I can only guess what else you have up your sleeve for the next novel. 

Dunkirk: Retreat from the Brink of Destruction, by Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Major J. Selby Bradford (M.B.E., M.C.)

Six stars

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

Resurrecting a piece first published in 1950, this digital version allows the reader to connect with Lt. Col. Ewan Butler and Major J. Selby Bradford (M.B.E., M.C.) in their recounting of events leading up to and the hands-on activities during Dunkirk, an important military campaign in the early part of the Second World War. Told from the perspective of members of the British Expeditionary Force (B.E.F.), Butler and Bradford seek to recollect some of their memories so that the importance of Dunkirk is not lost on subsequent generations. The authors begin recounting their recollections of the B.E.F. as it traversed the French and Belgian territories, speaking less of the impeding German approach, but rather the soldier’s interactions with citizens in the various towns along the way. At times drawing parallels between the hospitality offered during the Great War and this conflict, the authors make mention of how welcoming the entire process appeared to be, though the looming defeat of the Belgian forces was never far from from narrative. The winter of 1939, which flowed into early 1940, led to a build-up of military conflict, with France becoming the new battlefield. Butler and Bradford recount the incoming Nazi armies and Air Force regiments targeting France and littering propaganda along the countryside. It seemed somewhat effective in leaving segments of the popular ill at ease about the Allied movement, even as the B.E.F. sought to support their French brethren. By the time military campaigns were in full swing, Dunkirk became the battlefield central to the Allied-Axis clash, at least as can be deciphered from the book’s narrative. An important early battle in the Second World War, Dunkirk proved a litmus test for both Nazi and B.E.F. soldiers, indicative of what would be a drawn-out war. Members of the B.E.F. offered their all (at times including their lives) to stave off the Nazi march to overtake Europe. Interesting in its approach, this is a short primer on the military morale in the region during 1939-40. The curious and attentive reader should be able to pluck out some interesting factoids and it is for those individuals that this book will surely be of greatest interest.

This is an interesting piece for the reader, on numerous levels. First, it was purposely written ten years after events to allow some time for history to settle. The authors explain this at the outset, in hopes of having a sobering view of events, rather than writing in the heat of the moment. Secondly, the book is a digitalized copy of the text from 1950, allowing yet another generation of readers to enjoy this piece with ease. On this note, I must admit that the language and delivery does not appear as dated as I might have expected for sixty-seven year gap from the original publication. The test of time has surely stood with this piece, allowing curious readers to feel completely at ease. The third area of interest is how one might label this piece of writing. It is not fictional (even though it has some dialogue at various points), and it is not entirely historical in its presentation. It is also not a journal-based storytelling of events for the reader to digest. Instead, it stands as a loose and somewhat entertaining narrative that pulls on memories, even if they are somewhat clouded by close to ten years’ delay. Historians may decry this as being a jaded account and surely it is a personal perspective told by two members of the B.E.F. However, I would not call this propaganda in the least. Let me be the first to admit that I was not entirely drawn to this piece, perhaps because it was not as hardcore historical as I might have liked, but I can respect this publication for what it is. I agreed to read this for the publisher and think that many might have a great fascination with this first-hand account. It just was not for me, at least at this point in time. I am sure there will be other pieces that will pull me in, but surely the publisher, keen on reissuing a piece from 1950, cannot be held accountable for the content of this piece. Anyone who has a great deal of interest in soldier accounts of war-time battles might find this a stellar piece and for them, I recommend this piece.

Kudos, Lt. Col. Butler and Major Bradford for your frank account of the events surrounding the British Expeditionary Force in the early period of the Second World War. I will pass the title along to others, who can laud your praises even more than I have been able to in this review.  

The Bourne Initiative (Jason Bourne #14), by Eric van Lustbader

A painful four stars

Returning with another novel in the Jason Bourne series, Eric van Lustbader is back to extend a collection well past its ‘best before’ date. As Jason Bourne remains in hiding and mourns the loss of his friend, General Boris Karpov, he is targeted by his own country. A top-secret death squad is sent to kill Bourne and destroy the one item Karpov left him; a yacht. However, Karpov was not as stingy as one might think. The former head of the Russian FSB also created a cyber weapon he named the Bourne Initiative, trusting only Jason to control it. The Initiative, at full capacity, could strike terror into the heart of America, as it is designed and capable of ascertaining the president’s nuclear launch codes. With those codes, no one is sure what could happen, or how devastating the blowback might be. As Bourne learns of this ‘gift’, he realizes that his life is in an even more precarious position. Bourne is left to turn to one of his own enemies to ensure his own safety, alongside an operative who is anything but trustworthy. Bourne learns more about this Initiative weapon and what Karpov might have had in mind as he concocted the ultimate strike within American borders. Will Bourne allow the Initiative move forward, thereby placing the world in a state of dire volatility? Only time will tell, though even that is in short order. An interesting twist in the Bourne saga, though I am not fully captivated by the premise of this novel or the series continuation.

I will be the first to admit that there are times when a book simply does not connect with the reader. This is one such situation for me, though I fear that each book that van Lustbader adds to the Bourne series has been less than impressive and builds a stronger case that he ought to stop churning them out. In fact, as I have said before, it is perhaps time to let Jason Bourne head out to pasture and insist that van Lustbader turn to other projects. I simply cannot connect with Bourne, even though van Lustbader seems to have provided a decent premise for this novel. The characters are some that would appear enticing, though Bourne has left his espionage days behind and has become somewhat flat. Use of a Russian-based villain is refreshing, as it seems authors are still caught on the ISIS and Muslim-centred evildoers, which can only fan xenophobia. Even the plot, when reading the book’s summary, seems to be something on which the reader could grasp. Alas, I seem to have lost the ability to connect with any of it, as though the entire experience were Teflon and the entire novel slips away as quickly as it is delivered. I tried, but could not find myself latching on, no matter the time of day or activity undertaken. It is not the audiobook narrator, for I have much esteem for his work, nor is it that things were dull and one-dimensional, per se. There simply was a lack of anything that reached out and zapped me to attention. One can hope that other readers will find some solace in the plot and premise, but I suspect it might have something to do with the author. It is impossible to fill Robert Ludlum’s shoes and van Lustbader has never sought to utilise the Bourne we have all come to know in early novels. Sure, characters need to progress and become a little more…versatile, but this Bourne is not one I know or even one I want to know. Best to end things now and let Bourne enter obscurity on his own terms, rather than have scores of readers come to the same conclusions I have and risk tarnishing a character and author’s reputations.

Mr. van Lustbader, the time has come to let Bourne fade off your radar screen. Surely you have your own series to manage and the Ludlum Estate can survive off proceeds already in place.

A Mind to Kill, by John Nicholl

Eight stars

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

After thoroughly enjoying his previous work, I jumped at the opportunity to read an early copy of John Nicholl’s latest work. Likely pulling on some of his past experiences in Child Protection, Nicholl tells a dark and somewhat macabre story that will pull the reader in, if only to learn whether justice is served by the end. When the Crown Prosecution Service declines to press charges after she is sexually assaulted by her ballet instructor, six year-old Rebecca Smith is left to fight with the demons that haunt her dreams. There is now a paedophile left lurking in the shadows and DS Gareth ‘Grav’ Gravel has no answers for the Smith family. Moving ahead seventeen years, Grav is now a DI, though some of his recent activity has left him hanging onto his job by the skin of his teeth. Fallout from his partner’s apparent suicide has just about pushed Grav to the brink. Perhaps a holiday in the Bahamas will rejuvenate him and allow him to reorganize himself. Meanwhile, little Rebecca Smith is now a grown woman, though the demons are still ever-present. She has secured a tech job within the West Wales Police Force in Caerystwyth, but her true passion is hunting for paedophiles who lure children online. Taking on various child personas, Smith is able to keep up significant banter with them, until just the right moment, when she lays a trap and has them come for a visit. Rather than an innocent child waiting for a ‘special friend’, Smith enacts the revenge she wished she could have done all those years ago; torturing, killing, and dismembering the bodies. When some of the body parts surface in a local body of water, new hire DS Laura Kesey must make sense of this, while Grav remains halfway around the world. Her initial investigation makes some headway, though how could she know that Smith is the fox in the henhouse, wiping out some key evidence that could close the case in short order. As Grav is summoned back early from holiday, he is confronted with a case that is not bringing in leads as swiftly as he might have hoped. Add to that, Smith makes herself known to him, laying on significant guilt for his past failures. Will it be enough to spur Grav on to catching this paedophile killer, or has the past all but defeated him once and for all? Dark and at times shocking in its bluntness, Nicholl provides the reader a free trip into those parts of society many hope never to encounter. Perfect for those readers who are willing to venture well out of their comfort zone and never to feel the same way about the vulnerability of children again, with a powerful ending to leave a lasting residue.

My current work in Child Protection has left me a little better suited to stomach some of the atrocities found in this book, but no one can be completely prepared. Nicholl has continued to impress me with his abilities, both in writing and storytelling. He uses some of his own knowledge and experiences, weaving it into stories of the most depraved portions of society. While some might try to shy away or candy coat, Nicholl thrives on telling it ‘like it is’, if only to pay respect to the victims and raise a red flag with the reader. The characters used herein show the various perspectives that are present in the world of paedophilia: the vulnerable child, the helpless coppers, the destroyed family members, and even the general public. Nicholl provides a narrative that is both full of despair for the victims and yet shows how an investigation might yield effective results, given the right break. While I applaud the Rebecca Smith character and how she might seek to enact revenge after her ordeal, I am slightly troubled how her childhood trauma might turn her into such a ruthless killer. I might expect her to be withdrawn and not fuelled by such hatred to the point of plotting numerous murders. Granted, I have not been through such an experience and Nicholl is sure to have a a better understanding of the mindset of such victims. If the reader is looking for a swift and happy ending, this is surely not the book for them. However, those who can handle a trip to the dark side, come join Nicholl on this unforgettable journey. 

Kudos, Mr. Nicholl for this stunning piece. It chilled me to the core and I am sure many readers familiar with your work will be just as interested (dare I use the word, ‘excited’?) to tuck in. Always a pleasure to see what you have to offer.

Grace to the Finish (A Manor House Mystery #8), by Julie Hyzy

Eight stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Julie Hyzy and Berkley Publishing Group for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Julie Hyzy is back for another annual instalment in the Grace Wheaton series. This novel packs a punch and offers some insight into numerous threads that have been left dangling from previous series novels. Celebrating their recent purchase of a run-down building in town, Grace and her roommates-cum-business partners are eager to get a start on the renovations. However, after opening things up, they discover a woman’s body laying at the base of the stairs. Virginia Frisbie is not a random victim, having served as the local bank’s vice-president and the institution’s representative in the sale of the property. Could she have fallen, or is there something more nefarious at play? Grace finds herself in the middle of yet another mystery that could have a definitely murderous odour. As the investigation progresses, a squatter is discovered and his account could play a key role in given better context as it relates to Virginia’s presence on-site, as well as a mysterious man with whom she would rendezvous on a regular basis within the building. If that were not enough, Grace’s sister, Liza, is set to be released from prison and is itching to get her hands on the lion’s share of the Marshfield Estate, something that Grace has been lucky enough to have been promised when her boss (and recently discovered uncle) Bennett Marshfield passed on. Armed with a nosy aunt in town from Florida, Liza seeks to cash-in on the millions (or billions) to which she feels she is entitled because of her bloodline. However, as Grace frets about this, she learns a secret about Liza that could pose an even larger problem, once it comes to the surface. Grace may have a great deal on her plate, but there are suitors all around her, some of whom she has been trying to encounter romantically for quite some time. They, too, have skeletons in their closets, forcing Grace to make some major life decisions. A wonderful addition to the Marshfield Manor series, showing how entertaining Hyzy’s writing can be, in that quaint manner reserved for clean-fun reading. Highly recommend the entire series for a beach-binge, should time permit.

I have heard rumours that Hyzy decided to end the series with this novel, which would be somewhat disheartening. If it is true, she ends things on a high note, closing the proverbial book on the series before it loses its lustre. Grace Wheaton has seen much transformation in the series and this novel allows the reader to learn a touch more about her. Her sleuthing ways are front and centre in this piece, while the interesting balance of her work seems to have taken a back burner. I always enjoyed the balance, though I suspect Hyzy had too many Grace balls in the air to inject mention of art in more than passing. The secondary characters remain strong, with Frances adding her two cents whenever and wherever possible. The rest of the crew keep the story flowing well, though they do not play a crucial role. Even Liza and Aunt Belinda seem to be muted in the storyline that utilizes them. The overall mystery is strong and keeps the reader guessing. The entire series has relied on a quaint nature and so there is a strong sense of lightheartedness, even when cracking the mystery wide-open. Some key aspects of the story are resolved herein, which fuels the aforementioned rumours a little. However, there is much that could be developed yet, so Hyzy has not entirely closed the door on another book. Either way, I enjoy these novels, as they are quick-reads and highly entertaining for the time they take to finish.

Kudos, Madam Hyzy, for another wonderful novel. I am eager to see what else you have going on, being it Grace, Olivia, or someone new. 

The Templar Heresy (Chris Bronson #7), by James Becker

Six stars

After some delays to work on writing projects with some shared themes, James Becker is back with another Chris Bronson thriller. Tapping into Christian history and the symbols that have emerged through the ages, Becker entertains readers with this story while adding the thrill of the chase as two sides fight over the interpretation. Seeking a little excitement during his holidays, Chris Bronson accepts an invitation from ex-wife and best friend, Angela Lewis to join him on her latest archeological dig. He makes his way to Kuwait and is met at the airport, where Angela and fellow archeologist Stephen Taverner fill him in on their latest discovery. While out in the deserts of Iraq, they have come across some temple that has odd inscriptions on its walls. Bronson, always one to enjoy a mystery, agrees to come see them to determine if he can crack the code. However, as they return to camp, all that is left are a slew of dead archeologists, their bodies slaughtered and baking in the desert sun. The inscriptions have been chipped out of the walls, which only adds to the mystery. After deciding to flee the region and report what has happened when they are safely in the United Kingdom, Bronson leads the group back towards Kuwait. However, a band of thugs seems more than happy to exterminate them before they can reach their destination. Dodging bullets and trying to reach safety, Bronson, Angela, and Stephen are able to catch numerous last-minute flights around the Middle East before landing in Milan. From there, it is a simple trip to London and they will be safe. However, after splitting up from Stephen, Bronson and Angela learn that the thugs are still targeting them, having killed Stephen and left him for dead. Now, all eyes turn to these inscriptions, which Angela was smart enough to capture digitally during the excavation. As they begin to study the words and apply a few ciphers, there appears to be a larger mystery, one that includes (of course!) the Knights Templar. From here, Angela and Bronson must dodge the thugs as the race to uncover the mystery kicks into high gear. What the Templars may have discovered centuries ago remains highly thrilling even now. Bronson and Angela just may not live long enough to uncover the mystery for themselves. A decent story for series fans who have been waiting a while for the next instalment, complete with some seemingly sacrilegious speculations. There is even enough Templar flavour in the second half of the novel to appeal to thrill seekers who enjoy something a little more methodical. 

I have long been a fan of Becker and his work, having followed Chris Bronson through many an adventure. I will admit, though, that this novel seemed to lack some of the punch that I remembered from past stories in the series. During the Bronson reprieve, I have been following Becker as he delves into a Templar-based series and find the calibre of writing in this novel lacking significantly from those Templar stories, published as late as fall 2016. While Chris Bronson and Angela Lewis remain strong characters, it is as though the ‘cookie cutter’ race to solve a mystery was used here, allowing for no character development as individuals or jointly in their current platonic relationship. How Becker could have forgotten to add at least some fond memories his protagonists share baffles me, as they are forced to work so closely at hand. The thug characters continue to fuel the current “terrorist du jour” mentality, by tossing around ISIS images, though to some degree there is a sensical nature to the Muslim evildoer in this piece, which the reader understands better when they read the book. The plot is decent, though it is by no means original, either in Becker’s world or those authors who write about uncovering Templar secrets. I must comment here that the story, while fiction, could have been firmly rooted in reality, though I found the constant “let me just buy more airline tickets, hotels, and anything we need” highly unrealistic. Bronson comes across as being flush with cash and able to simply pull out the large sums of money while on the run. Again, I may be nitpicking, but this is my review and I can address issues that came to mind throughout the reading. All in all, a decent read, but surely not one of Becket’s best. I hope this was simply an aberration. 

Kudos, Mr. Becker for another Bronson-Lewis adventure. I know you have a Templar book soon to be released and hope you can use your successes there and allow them to return to this series in short order.

Seven Stones to Stand of Fall: A Novella Collection, by Diana Gabaldon

Nine stars

With the release of this recent collection of novellas, Gabaldon seeks to pull together a number of her shorter pieces for the reader’s enjoyment. With some mention of Jamie Fraser, a peppering of Roger, and even the elder Fraser, the vast number of stories have some Lord John Grey connection. When I undertook my Diana Gabaldon binge in the summer of 2015, I sought to read her entire collection in chronological order, which sandwiched Outlander novels with a number of the Lord John pieces. A number of the novella found within this collection were included in this binge. I have chosen to resurrect these reviews for those stories I have already read in this collection, so some of the comments might seem out of place in 2017. The latter two pieces are those I have never read and so their reviews are brand new to me and those who follow my postings. I hope you will enjoy my summaries and encourage anyone with a massive amount of patience to tackle the larger Outlander/Lord John collection. 

The Custom of the Army:

It all begins with an electric eel party and a duel that goes horribly wrong. A night of apparent debauchery leads our famed Gabaldon character in a heap of trouble everywhere he turns. In an attempt to hide himself while he is persona non grata, Grey agrees to act as a character witness for a friend facing court martial, in CANADA. With an additional familial matter to handle while he is away, Grey embarks on an adventure to the New World and mixes it up with the British Army (currently at war with France in Quebec), while he hunts down a man keen on abandoning his duties. Gabaldon shows the reader another humorous side of Grey who, without Jamie Fraser around, is quite a civilised gentleman.

Gabaldon does a great job in keeping the LJG series moving forward. With some great storytelling, time appropriate characters and wonderful narration, anyone who is a fan of the Outlander series or the full-length Lord John Grey books will not be disappointed. This book sits nicely as a stand-alone, hence its unofficial non-labelled nature between many of the other pieces of writing in the series.

The Space Between:

In this novella, Gabaldon chooses two lesser characters and send them on a journey mentioned towards the end of An Echo in the Bone. Young Joan MacKimmie, step-daughter of our beloved Jamie Fraser, heads to Paris to answer her calling and train to become a nun. Sent on her way with Jamie’s nephew, Michael, they travel through the streets of Paris in a short and jam-packed story. While Joan seeks to make herself a bride of Christ, she wrestles with voices only she can hear, which offer both advice and glimpses into the future. As she prepares for her entry into the convent, she begins to question everything she has come to believe, which led her to this point. Michael, who may have been sent as a bodyguard, fights his own inner demons on the trip, part related to his growing feelings for this young woman as well as the knowledge his Aunt Claire gave him about the not too distant civil uprising in France, with Paris at its heart. Michael and Joan struggle to balance their responsibilities with what the heart desires, creating a space between logic and emotion. They must also fend off the plans of a sinister man who seeks revenge for Claire Fraser’s antics when last she spent time in Paris. Learning of the connection Joan and Michael possess to La Dame Blanche, they are spun into a web of deceit and potential disaster. With a sprinkling of time travel discussion (of course, no Outlander story can ignore the Stones), Gabaldon moves her major sub-story forward while keeping a little more of the full time movement situation for the final novel. Brilliantly composed with just enough to keep the reader wanting more.

As the number of remaining Outlander stories dwindle, I am left to pay special attention to these tales. Having taken the time to re-read the entire collection, I have taken away so much and learned a great deal, both about the history of the time as well as the intricacies of the characters Gabaldon has set before the reader. As mentioned many times in previous novels, Gabaldon may introduce minor characters throughout, whose importance is only known much later. This novella is a wonderful case in point, where the likes of Joan and Michael receive only passing mention in earlier stories, but now play central roles. One could say the same for Comte St. Germain, who acts as a Stephen Bonnet or Black Jack Randall of sorts. Wonderfully spun in such a way to entertain and intrigue simultaneously.

The Plague of Zombies:
In Gabaldon’s final piece (to date) of Lord John-centred writing, she succeeds in weaving another great tale with her ever-resourceful Lord John Grey at the helm. In Jamaica on official business, Lord John is soon drawn into a phenomena new to him; the emergence of zombies. Waking one night by a visitor whose human form is questionable, Grey wonders if there is more to this myth than strict lore. When the Governor is found murdered, the scene leads many to believe a pack of zombies may be behind the crime. However, Grey is not so sure and mounts clues to turn the investigation in another direction. With many wishing him gone (from office as well as from the earth), the Governor’s demise leaves many suspects for Grey to ponder. That said, the power of zombies appears stronger than even and Grey seeks to learn more about them if for no other reason than to quench his curiosity. Another great novella by Gabaldon to keep the reader on the edge of their seat and with an eye on packs of unknowns lurking the streets at night.

Gabaldon’s OUTLANDER series is one of my great guilty pleasures. Her plethora of characters leaves a great opening for many interesting branch-off stories or novellas. That said, her character Lord John Grey, whose role in the Outlander series is minor in the first three novels, is one perfectly suited for a series of novels. An 18th century Sherlock Holmes on one hand and a tyrannical man whose lust for Jamie Fraser fuels a powerful hatred in the main novel series cannot be discounted. Gabaldon has done a masterful job of painting a calmer and more likeable side to Grey in this series, as well as jumping on the ‘zombie’ bandwagon made overly popular by THE WALKING DEAD. A great novella for fans of the series or newbies alike, it makes for a highly entertaining read for the curious reader.

A Leaf of the Wind of All Hallows:
What ever happened to Jerry MacKenzie, father of Roger, whose plane went down during the War effort? As Gabaldon mentions in the story’s preface, discussion of Jerry opened in An Echo in the Bone, where Claire admitted that the story Roger knew was not entirely true. With Roger finally encountering Jerry in 1739, something must have happened related to the Stones, but the story is again not flushed out. Gabaldon chooses this point to offer a real account of events, just in time as Outlander fans are surely tearing their hair out with wonder, as the cliffhanger found no resolution within Written in My Own Heart’s Blood. Spitfire pilot Jerry MacKenzie is approached by MI6 (and Frank Randall no less) to help in the execution of a covert mission behind the Iron Curtain. While out on reconnaissance, Jerry develops engine trouble and crash lands somewhere in Northumbria. As Jerry seeks to get his bearings, he discovers that he’s been propelled into the past, but has no explanation for events. When he comes across a mysterious character, a little is revealed, including how to get back, but no clear understanding of the Stones is made known. Returning to modern times, Jerry comes across his wife, Marjorie, but is not in a position to reach her to discuss his revelations. Filling a few cracks in the Outlander storylines, this short story fits nicely, yet leaves much to the imagination. 

Virgins:

VIRGINS, a novella penned by Gabaldon years after she made Jamie Fraser a successful protagonist in the Outlander series, opens the collection nicely. In it, Fraser and his friend, Ian Duncan, embark on the life of young mercenaries, well away from Scotland. It’s 1740 and the boys, aged nineteen and twenty respectfully, find themselves out in the world, experiencing all that it has to offer. While Duncan sees that his friend is holding onto a secret, nothing prepares him when he learns the truth. Captain Jack Randall came to Lallybroch and embarrassed Fraser, along with his entire family, leaving Jamie banished from his own estate. Jamie uses the attack and belittling to fuel his fire to become a man in a hard-knock world. Along the way, Jame and Ian learn about fighting, sex, and what it means to be independent, all while crossing paths with many a clan unlike themselves. These ‘life virgins’ soon learn the ways of the world while vowing to protect one another. The novella opens the door to what is sure to be a wonderful series, at least for Jamie, as he hones his skills and returns to face Randall in the years to come. The awkwardness that he will encounter (as Outlander fans know all too well) should make for an ever-changing flood of sentiment in the man’s brain…but we have many many pages to learn all about that.

A Fugitive Green:

In a story set around 1744, Minerva ‘Minnie’ Rennie is living in Paris with her father. They run a somewhat successful bookselling business, but it is merely a front for some of their more deceptive work: espionage, blackmail, and a little robbery. At seventeen, Minnie is ready to find herself a husband, but has been kept shielded from men by her overprotective father. However, an Englishman is said to make the best husband, so she is sent off to London to find a man and help her father with an especially interesting assignment. Meanwhile, the Duke of Pardloe, Harold (Hal), brother of the popular Lord John Grey, is still mourning the death of his wife and infant. They both perished after the onset of premature labour occurred when Hal engaged in a duel with his wife’s lover, Nathaniel Twelvetrees. The fallout of that duel and the death of his wife has kept Hal trying to justify his actions, though he has no firm proof of the affair. After Minnie arrives in London and is given the task of securing the collection of letters between Esme and Twelvetrees. Sly as she might be, even Minnie is sure to find this task somewhat difficult. Minnie is also left to discover a family secret that will shock her to the core, burning in a nunnery. While Minnie tries to secure copies of the letters, she encounters Hal and is somewhat besotted with him. This chance encounter turns somewhat steamy after she is caught red-handed trying to locate the letters. Returning to Paris, Minnie recounts her story to a curious father, who can see he has a well-trained daughter on his hands. However, when she reveals two secrets, all bets are off. A wonderful story that even allows the beloved Jamie Fraser to make a cameo appearance. Gabaldon is able to tie off a few threads left dangling in past stories as she adds to the Outlander/Lord John Grey chronology.

Besieged:

In the waning days of his military governorship in Jamaica, Lord John Grey is preparing to head to the America Colonies, not yet in full insurrection mode. The year is 1762 and life has been decent for this man of many adventures. He receives his step-father, who passes along a message that Lord John’s mother, the Dowager Duchess of Pardloe, is in Havana and may need to be collected. While this seems like a lovely side journey, news that the British Navy is on its way to seize the territory in its ongoing battles with Spain, leaves Lord John a little less at ease. Gathering his retinue, they make their way to Cuba and soon learn that the Dowager has made her way into the rural areas, alongside some other members of Grey’s extended family. Added to the upcoming siege is news of yellow fever, which has been making its way around the region. Choosing to arm himself with a few Spanish-speaking individuals, Lord John ventures far from the beaten path and encounters some less than pleasurable individuals who seek to form their own slave insurrection. What follows will test Lord John to his core and may put a significant flavour to the intended mission. Another great story that shows the softer and more compassionate side of Lord John Grey during his continued missions around the New World.

While not entirely full of new stories, the collection is well worth the time invested by the reader. Gabaldon is not only the master of the genre, but finds new and exciting ways to link passing mentions in some of her larger pieces with novellas that explain or further the already-developed piece. History is, at times, fluid when Gabaldon is at the helm, but it is the intricacies of the narrative that makes this collection a stunning compendium. Many will know of Lord John and Jamie, but it’s these minor characters who are given some centre stage time that enriches the experience for all. 

Kudos, Madam Gabaldon for this lovely collection. Please allow me to speak for your entire fan base when I say, ‘we thank you for these short stories… but when can we dive into BOOK NINE?’. There, I said it!